Neil Young tours to raise money for First Nations tar sands battle

Rocker calls Canada's energy industry a 'devastating environmental catastrophe' that violates aboriginal treaty rights

Neil Young speaks during a news conference for the "Honor the Treaties" tour in Toronto on Sunday.
Mark Blinch/AP

Musician Neil Young kicked off his Honor the Treaties tour Sunday in Canada to raise money for a First Nations' legal battle against a tar sands project activists say would violate treaty and constitutional rights of indigenous communities.

"We are killing these people," Young told a crowd gathered at Toronto's Massey Hall. "The blood of these people are on modern Canada's hands."

The tour began in Toronto, where Young spoke at a news conference along with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allen Adam and environmentalist David Suzuki before performing in front of a sold-out crowd.

The week-long tour will visit Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. Proceeds from the shows will be donated to the legal-defense fund of the northern Alberta-based Athabasca tribal government challenging new tar sands projects.

During a news conference, Young, who visited a tar sands site near Fort McMurray, Alberta, called the industry “the greediest, most destructive and most disrespectful demonstration of something just run amok.” The rock legend said what he saw was a “devastating environmental catastrophe” that could only be compared to Hiroshima.

“We went to the homes of First Nations people and I met them," Young told concert attendees at Massey Hall. "While I was there, I drove around the tar sands in my electric car and experienced this unbelievable smell and toxicity. My throat and eyes were burning, and this was about 25 miles away from the actual site at Fort (McMurray).”

Calls by Al Jazeera to Alberta's government representatives were not returned in time for publication. According to the Oil Sands Division of the Alberta Department of Energy website, the tar sands industry provides significant economic benefits to Albertans. The energy sector accounted for over 22 percent of Alberta's GDP in 2012, according to the Alberta Department of Energy.

Alberta, furthermore, can expect $350 billion in royalties and $122 billion in total tax revenue from work at the tar sands over the next 25 years, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI).

Development of tar sands involves the extraction of heavy crude oil called bitumen from underneath the wilderness. Critics have warned of potentially catastrophic environmental consequences.

Fort McMurray lies on the outskirts of Jackpine Mine, which was approved for expansion by the government in July, 2013. That order convinced the Athabasca they had no choice but to fight the move in court for violating treaty agreements, which prohibit any activity that interferes with Athabasca's ability to survive by hunting, fishing and trapping on their territory.

Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told CBC Canada Monday that the natural resource sector is a fundamental part of the country’s economy.

“Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians,” MacDonald said in a statement. He added the government would “continue to ensure that Canada’s environmental laws and regulations are rigorous.”

Suzuki, who introduced Young in Toronto, said that the First Nation is simply asking the government to respect an agreement that it signed.

“These are some of the poorest people in Canada, and they’re telling us there’s more important things than money — like the air, the water and all the other living organisms on the planet,” Suzuki said.

'David and Goliath'

The 1,200-member Athabasca tribe has asked Canada's federal court to review Ottawa's decision to allow the expansion, which would encroach on Athabasca land.

"It's a David and Goliath story," Eriel Deranger, communications coordinator for the Athabasca First Nation, told Al Jazeera. The expansion could also violate federal laws covering fisheries and species at risk, Deranger said.

Deranger, an Athabasca tribe member, said the Jackpine Mine expansion would contribute to cumulative impacts that would break the treaty. She added that the government knew that when it was approved.

“The decision released in July made major admissions," she said. "The panel admitted that the project would have significant adverse effects on the environment and in some cases even cause irreversible damage.”

David Schindler, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, testified at the Jackpine Mine hearings. He said the area had already seen severe environmental impacts by previous mines in the area.

“They’re talking about destroying 20 kilometers of the Athabasca River — that’s a fairly big body of water,” Schindler told Al Jazeera. “There are about 10,000 or more fish that go up and down that river, and it’s being treated as if it was a sewer.”

Deranger said the project would impact species like wood bison, caribou and other at-risk species as well as fisheries and waterways — with no proven method of reclamation afterward.

Schindler, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, said no real assessment process can be done by “a few government appointees known to favor the oil and gas industry.”

He said his 2008 study on the environmental impact of industry pollutants was at first discounted by the government, but was later confirmed by their own studies. In the end, tougher monitoring standards were recommended, but Schindler said the monitoring program is still controlled by the government.

“There has never been a mine turned down, despite thousands of pages of risks being presented to these panels,” Schindler said. "It makes you feel creepy having your government make a treaty and then violate it at every turn."

The Athabasca First Nation says Shell, which operates the Jackpine Mine, breached its duties to “meaningfully consult” with the tribal council — a First Nation right across Canada in cases where energy industry activities could impact their territory.

A spokesman from Shell Canada told CBC Canada that company staff and senior leaders meet regularly to deal with aboriginal communities to discuss projects, training, business opportunities and cultural activities.

However, Deranger contested the seriousness of those meetings.

“We found our concerns are largely unaddressed … our rights left at the wayside in the development of these projects are either negated or ignored,” she said.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter