Earlier this week, an attack site called Neil Young Lies popped up in my Facebook feed, and I was immediately interested in what appeared to be an organized attempt to discredit Neil’s attention-grabbing, anti-tar sands activism. Neil is an aging rocker who is the first to admit he is “not an expert” on energy extraction, but he has become a representative for an increasingly agitated aboriginal population in Canada.
The central issue for Canada's First Nations people appears to be the seemingly reckless development from the oil and gas industry that is threatening their cultural right to maintain a subsistence diet—meaning they have a legal right to hunt, trap, and fish. Any action that threatens this right, by way of damaging the ecosystem, is against Canadian law according to Treaties 6, 7, and 8—which is why, of course, Neil’s tour is called “Honor the Treaties.”
If you were to visit and read the skewed literature over at Neil Young Lies, however, you wouldn’t think that protecting legislation written to preserve First Nations culture was Neil’s mandate whatsoever. The section “Who Paid for Neil Young to Lie?” alleges that Neil’s entire tour and the surrounding campaign has been paid for—and is being controlled by—an environmental NGO in San Francisco called the Tides Foundation. (Tides did not respond in time to comment before publication of this article.) Also, the site claims that the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), the reserve that is geographically closest to Fort McMurray, is in the Tides Foundation’s pocket as well.
Neil Young Lies is supported by Ethical Oil, a pro-Canadian oil advocacy group funded by oil companies and founded by Alykhan Velshi, an advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Ezra Levant, Sun News’ most controversial pundit, is their chairman and defacto media spokesman—in fact, the group itself is named after Ezra’s best selling book from 2010. Writing for the Tyee in 2011, Andrew Nikiforuk criticized the book for having five crucial falsehoods. Andrew was also quick to point out that Ezra is a “convicted libeler” and “former tobacco lobbyist.”
The difference between so-called “ethical oil” and “conflict oil,” according to Ethical Oil and its supporters, is described on their website: “Countries that produce Ethical Oil uphold human rights and have high environmental standards. They ensure economic justice and promote peace. By contrast, Conflict Oil countries oppress their citizens and operate in secret with no accountability to voters, the press, or independent judiciaries.”
Ethical Oil is already infamous for running attack ads against liberal foes such as the NDP, and for “rebranding” the oil sands on Oprah’s TV network with a campaign that points out the massive injustices in Saudi Arabia, as if to say, “At least we’re not murdering bloggers in the street, so buy our oil.” This seems to be a major sticking point for the Ethical Oil people, as you can see from the video embedded below. It’s messaging like this that promotes a myopically patriotic, xenophobic, and racist attitude which generalizes the Middle East as a land of barbarians.
After learning about the Ethical Oil group, I got in touch with Ezra Levant, who called me yesterday morning to talk about his support for the Canadian oil industry and his dismissal of Neil’s activism. He told me the Neil Young Lies site is “amazing” and “great” because it’s “fighting lies with facts.”
It’s certainly true that Neil made a few factual errors when he was out on the press circuit talking about the tar sands. Everyone and their mom has already heard his Hiroshima comparison which is, granted, on the extreme side—even though a Nagasaki survivor has said on the record that Fort McMurray looks “much more scary, ugly, and disturbing than photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”—but it was also ridiculous for Prime Minister Harper to make a symbolic pronouncement that Fort McMurray would be an undertaking so epic it would rival the pyramids or the Great Wall of China. It’s clear that both sides of this debate are prone to hyperbole.
Neil Young Lies attempts to break down the so-called falsehoods that Neil has spread throughout the media. For example, in response to Neil’s assertion that “there is no reclamation” of oil sands sites, Ethical Oil and Neil Young Lies insist that some of the oil sands mines are reclaimed after the land is used. And they’re right. Neil was wrong to say there is no reclamation, but the minute amount of reclamation that does occur is nothing to celebrate.
This graph from the government of Alberta’s own website shows how much of the oil sands is “disturbed” and how little of the land is “certified reclaimed” or in the process of being reclaimed. The Pembina Institute, an environmental protection organization with members across Canada, has a breakdown of the reclamation process that points out: “Only 0.15 percent of the area disturbed by oil sands mining is certified as reclaimed by the provincial government.” So while Neil may have overstated the lack of reclamation in Alberta, he wasn’t far off. This suggests that Ethical Oil is not seeing the forest for the oil-soaked trees.
The site also points out that Neil was wrong about Canada selling oil to China, which is technically true, although Prime Minister Harper did allow one of Canada’s oil corporations to be bought out by a state-owned Chinese corporation. It also jumps on Neil for claiming Fort McMurray smells like gas and that cancer rates are exploding in the region.
I’ve never been to Fort McMurray, but I’ve been to Sarnia’s Chemical Valley. As far as air quality goes in Sarnia, it was at times unbearable and nearly unbreatheable; yet everyone who was willing to talk to me from government or industry told me that the air was fine and pointed to government air quality metrics that didn’t dissuade me from smelling a thick, oily gas smell in the region—never mind the World Health Organization’s assertion that Sarnia has the worst air in all of Canada.
As for the cancer rates Neil pointed out, these things are often hard to verify, because the necessary studies often aren’t done to prove or disprove anyone, which leaves such claims in a state of reasonable doubt. All that’s left is anecdotal evidence for the community to stake their claim. For example, a rare case of bile duct cancer that only occurs in “one of every 100,000 to 200,000 people” has appeared three times in Fort Chipewyan, a First Nations community in Alberta with a population of 1,100 people.
Meanwhile, Ezra told me “Neil Young is full of shit” because he “rides in a private jet,” and the Calgary Herald, a Postmedia newspaper, has said, “Neil Young puts comfort ahead of convictions.” It’s certainly true that his private jet results in a larger-than-average carbon footprint, and this makes him an easy target for defenders of the Alberta oil sands. Does that lifestyle, however, make all of his statements moot? I don’t think so.
Ezra also harped on a $55,000 deposit made from the Tides Foundation to the ACFN; this deposit, he insists, is indicative of Neil and the ACFN “taking money from a lobby group from San Francisco to shit on Canada.” He implied that Chief Alan Adam, along with the communications coordinator of the ACFN, Eriel Deranger, were on the payroll of the lobby group. Ezra’s theory is echoed on this page of the Neil Young Lies website.
I called Eriel yesterday to ask her about Ezra, Sun Media, Ethical Oil, and the site's claim that she is in the pocket of an environmental lobby group from San Francisco. When I first asked her for a reaction, she laughed, then regained her composure, and we discussed the issues.
“I’m not going to deny that I have a relationship with many of the folks associated with the Tides Foundation, but they absolutely don’t have any control over us… I think that the group would like to, but they don’t.”
Eriel explained to me that the ACFN is one of the few in Canada that does not accept money from the federal government as of the beginning of 2013 (they were given $2.6 million in 2012), so they have to look for funding elsewhere. The $55,000 that Ezra is treating as the smoking gun for his theory that some shadowy San Francisco-based environmentalists are controlling Neil—according to Eriel—was money granted to the ACFN from Tides so Eriel and her organization could develop an education and communications campaign to spread their philosophy and develop workshops in the community.
Eriel told me one of the principle beliefs of the ACFN is a “respect for land, water, and culture.” She added, “That vision drives our position on the oil sands. We’re not anti development. We’ve said it 1,000 times, and we’ll say it 1,000 times more. We want to see progress and opportunities for our members that respect land, water, and culture. And right now what’s happening in Alberta’s oil sands is not meeting the mission and vision of our nation. What’s happening is we’re seeing land that is basically considered a casualty of the development. We’re seeing water sources that are being appropriated for industrial development, and the priority has been given to them, which is affecting our ability to access our land.”
As far as Neil’s carbon footprint goes, Eriel and I discussed the “sparring,” as the Huffington Post put it, between the Herald, Ezra, and Neil over Neil’s idling buses that apparently ran off bio-diesel generators. Eriel has a much different take on why Neil brought his buses. “He had his tour bus because his son came with him, and his son has cerebral palsy,” she said. “He needed a place to lie down and rest. That’s the only reason he brought his tour bus.” While this doesn’t exactly explain having more than one bus—Ezra and the Herald say Neil had five—the comfort of Neil’s son, I’m sure, is a top priority.
While the Ethical Oil people insist that Canada is “ethical” because the country's environmental protections are respectable and effective, Eriel pointed me to a study—which was conducted by Timothy Lee, an Albertan researcher, and Dr. Kevin Timoney—that found out of 9,000 environmental incidents in the oil sands region between 1996 and 2009 only 37 of them were met with enforcement from the Albertan government. When it was released, “a senior provincial government scientist publicly accused [Timothy and Kevin] of deliberately manipulating and even lying about data in a critical report on the oil sands.” That government scientist was forced to apologize.
It’s for gross, widespread violations like this that Eriel, Neil, and others insist the federal government and the oil industry are breaking the law when it comes to their degradation of the environment. It is also arguably unconstitutional, according to section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act that was written to protect Aboriginal rights, particularly when it comes to their subsistence diet.
According to Eriel, “It’s time that industry and government take a look at First Nations rights and titles [or else they] will be extinguished with these projects and [the government and industry] will be complicit. This is going to lead to serious financial risks to these projects. Our nation is just one nation; there are many nations in the area that are going to start standing up. You’re seeing issues in Cold Lake, Beaver Lake… First Nations rights are going to get in the way, and that is going to drive up the cost of oil. If the government is actually looking into the interests of the public, they would sort this out with the First Nations now, rather than continue to satisfy industry.”
After speaking to Eriel Deranger, I called up Amanda Achtman, who is listed on the Neil Young Lies site as the point of contact for any comment. I asked her if she thought the cause of protecting the rights of Aboriginals, as it is written in Canadian law, was a valid cause and whether she considered that to be one of Neil’s lies. Amanda told me, “Environmental degradation is not something that only affects aboriginals—it affects everyone, so that’s a separate and distinct issue from treaties that seem to protect a certain demographic. The environment is relevant to everyone.”
I pointed out that there are several instances of gross environmental abuse in the oil sands region that seem to fit the bill of environmental degradation, but she insisted that these terms were too subjective.
“What is the standard of degradation? Aboriginals who first discovered bitumen and used it as canoe sealant... was that degradation? Were they degrading the environment or not? What constitutes environmental harm? Do we not all realize that by living and participating in the world the environment will be influenced, but so be it. The earth is for humans, not the other way around.”
Amanda refers to Neil Young Lies as a grassroots campaign, but to me, that term rings too true to the American Tea Party, which has been confirmed to be a “grassroots” construct of the billionaire Koch brothers and big tobacco. There is even some speculation that the Koch Foundation has donated to Ethical Oil, which Ezra has vehemently denied, although he thinks the Koch Foundation is “wonderful” and interned for them in the summer of 1994. While the Ethical Oil organization is tight-lipped about its donors, they do not deny their cause is funded by “companies… working to produce Ethical Oil.”
When I asked who else was helping to put the site together, Amanda told me, “We have a team of researchers and writers. It’s small, but we work together on it.”
After asking Amanda if any of those people work in the oil industry, she said, “I’m not commenting on these aspects. I don’t have this information.”