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Neil Young Says We’re Breaking Our Promise to the First Nations

At a press event earlier in the day, Neil Young told reporters that an oil sands extraction site was “one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen.” That his celebrity was needed for attention to be paid to this issue, he told the press, was “a sorry state...

Andrew Weaver, Eriel Deranger, Allan Adam, and Neil Young. Photo courtesy of Michael Toledano.

“Look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century,” Neil Young sang to a capacity audience at Massey Hall. He modified the lyrics to one of his most famous songs for the occasion, the first stop of a benefit tour raising money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s legal battle against tar sands expansion. He performed in front of a massive “Honour the Treaties” banner while aerial footage of the tar sands played in the venue’s lobbies. Outside the venue, the street was closed off, and an Idle No More round dance was held to thank Young for his act of solidarity.


At a press event earlier in the day, Young told reporters that an oil sands extraction site was “one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen.” He sat alongside ACFN’s Chief Adam and spokesperson Eriel Deranger, using his celebrity to boost their message. The fact that his celebrity was needed for attention to be paid to this issue, he told the press, was “a sorry state of affairs.”

“We have seen unabated development and approval after approval being granted in the Athabasca oil sands region,” Eriel Deranger said. Her nation has launched legal challenges against several new tar sands extraction sites, including Shell’s recently approved Jackpine mine—a project that would double the size of Shell’s Alberta operation. These challenges are based on the violation of Treaty 8, a constitutionally protected agreement which indicates that ACFN must be consulted with and accommodated if their rights to hunt, fish, trap, or access their cultural grounds will be affected by projects.

“As people of the land it becomes incredibly important to ensure that our ecosystems and our waterways are protected, not just now, but for future generations. And that’s not just something that our people believe in. It’s something that is entrenched in the Canadian constitution under section 35,” Deranger said.

These constitutional rights were Young’s focus as well. When performing, he updated the lyrics of his 1979 song “Pocahontas,” relating North America’s history of colonization to Canada’s present day policies. “Maybe Stephen Harper can be there by the fire/ We’ll sit and talk about Ottawa and the good things there for hire/ And the broken treaties/ Stephen Harper, Pocahontas and me,” he sang, garnering a standing ovation from the crowd.


During the press conference, Young told media that “Canada–the name 'Canada'–is based on a First Nations’ word, the name 'Ottawa' is based on a First Nations’ word, 'Ontario' is based on a First Nations’ word. 'Manitoba,' 'Saskatchewan,' 'Quebec.' These are all First Nations’ words. That is where Canada came from. We are here. We made a deal with these people. We are breaking our promise, we are killing these people. The blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands. And it will be as a result of not just a slow thing but of a fast and horrific thing if this continues.”

Chief Adam mirrored this message, stating that, “As a Canadian citizen you live and breathe the treaty everyday living here in Canada.” He later told me, “I think it’s a shame on behalf of Canada to not uphold their laws that they’ve produced. The Canadian government at this point in time is looking more like a fascist government than anything else.” When I asked what Young’s support meant to him, he said, “It gives us an opportunity to have our challenges heard in the legal system. If the Canadian government and the provincial government recognize the rights that we have, we wouldn’t have to go through this procedure to get our voices heard… as taxpayers that’s where all your money is going, to fight First Nations for the protected rights that they have enshrined in the constitution. That’s what I don’t understand, why are the people allowing this government to do it?”


The panel was introduced by Vanessa Gray, a young activist from Sarnia who appeared in our documentary on the Chemical Valley. Her introduction at the Toronto event provided a local context for a discussion of the oil industry. “I am here because my nation of Aamjiwnaang faces extreme environmental racism where our health is affected. Our land is dying from industry moving in to our territory. The tar sands expansion also affects my first nation through the Enbridge Line 9 pipeline that runs along my community,” she said. “I’m here as a youth because I am worried about my kids and my grandkids to come, and what kind of future they will have if the Harper government and the tar sands projects, don’t stop.”

Photo courtesy of Michael Toledano.

But the ACFN panelists stressed that they were not altogether opposed to the extraction of oil from Alberta’s tar sands. It is the recklessness with which extraction has gone forward that they wished to address.

Chief Adam explained that, “I ran on a platform that we were going to cash in on the economic development in the region. And that was my mandate.” But after becoming aware of the prevalence of rare cancers in his community, and the toxicity of local water and food, his political trajectory changed. Now, the Chief said, “Our mandate is to protect our nation, to protect the next generations that are coming up.”

“The economic development that has occurred has occurred at a rapid rate. We have a runaway train without a conductor that’s controlling it,” the Chief explained. An example of this recklessness, he argued, can be seen in the federal government’s recently passed laws. Bills C-45 and C-38, he said “gutted the whole environmental act. The regulatory system is no longer there. It protected your rights as a Canadian citizen, it protected the First Nations’ rights as treaty rights holders. So it’s a free for all when it comes to industry.” He provided the example of a Sherritt coalmine accident on the Athabasca, where “On October 31st the tailings ponds that were holding toxic material breached. 670 million litres of toxic material made its way into the Athabasca River. Until today nobody is being held responsible for it.”


Neil at the ACFN press conference. Video courtesy of Michael Toledano.

To Eriel Derangers, a reckless atittude also defines the government-backed myth that the tar sands can be restored to their original state once the oil is gone. “These are areas that are pristine, untouched waterways, muskegs and marshlands, and ecological features that are unique to this region, and that cannot be reclaimed by any methods that currently exist out there. There are no proven methods for reclamation,” she said.

This ideological short-sightedness, Young attested, results from the corporate model of resource extraction. “This oil is all going to China. It’s not for Canada. It’s not for the United States. It’s not ours—it belongs to the oil companies, and Canada’s government is behind making this happen. It’s truly a disaster to anyone with an environmental conscience, anyone who is thinking about their grandchildren, anyone who can see outside of a three-month window of corporate profit has got to be appalled with what is going on,” he said.

But with Neil Young’s voice and his power to fundraise, ACFN’s legal fight just got an unprecedented boost. Its goals are crystal clear. “Until government and industry can prove to our nation that these areas can be developed in a way that is responsible, and that can ensure that there is proven reclamation standards, and that our rights will not be negated or molested by this development, we will continue to hold the line to stop development in those regions,” Derangers said, summarizing. “The legal defence fund which this concert is for is to help ACFN continue to bring forward those challenges of projects in this region.”