Canadians should fact-check Neil Young’s anti-oil sands rap, industry’s pronouncements

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Neil Young is in Calgary this Sunday for the last in his series of anti-oil sands concerts.

Dogged by controversy, Canadian rock legend's "Honour the Treaties" tour is in support of northern Alberta's Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. It is aimed at helping the Chipewyan raise funds for a court fight to block the expansion of Shell Oil's Jackpine oil sands mine, upstream of the First Nation's reserve.

The First Nation contends oil sands extraction is destroying its way of life and it has not been consulted on the expansion, as required under a series of Supreme Court rulings and under terms of a treaty it signed with the Crown.

Chief Allan Adam joined Young and prominent environmentalist David Suzuki at a news conference before a Friday night concert in Regina. Adam was wearing a hoodie sweatshirt with the slogan "Got Land? Thank an Indian," which was briefly banned from a Regina school because it was deemed provocative, CBC News reported.

"This shirt is reality," Young said. "There is nothing wrong with it. We should all be proud... That there is a heritage, that Canada goes back and it came from the First Nations, that we made these peaceful arrangements, these treaties."

[ Related: ‘Got Land? Thank an Indian’ sweater joins ranks of controversial T-shirt slogans ]

Young has always been comfortable with the provocative, hammering die-hard segregationists in the early '70s songs Southern Man and Alabama.

His opposition to oil sands goes back a long way. A life-long car guy, Young championed clean-vehicle technology via the LincVolt, a 1959 Lincoln Continental convertible using a hybrid drive system fuelled by biomass.

But critics say he over-reached himself last fall when he compared the land around oil-sands hub Fort McMurray, Alta., to Hiroshima's nuclear-blasted wasteland.

David Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, bit into Young in Globe and Mail op-ed article on Thursday.

Young is entitled to speak up, Collyer said, but "everyone is not entitled to their own facts."

The oil industry has made strides in its relationship with First Nations and oil sands projects have resulted in $1.3 billion in annual revenue to aboriginal-owned businesses and more than 1,700 permanent jobs for local First Nations people, he said.

"No one in industry begrudges the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation or any other aboriginal community from representing their interests," Collyer wrote, "And there’s no question that aboriginal issues must be addressed if Canada is to have timely access to markets for its energy production – timely access that benefits all Canadians.

However, fostering conflict and divisiveness through off-oil rhetoric and ignoring the many examples of mutual benefits and shared value involving the oil and gas industry and First Nations is not constructive."

[ Relaed: Neil Young leverages his fame to shine spotlight on oilsands ]

Globe columnist Gary Mason wrote Friday that some of the criticism aimed at Young is justified, especially when he gets the facts wrong.

"All the production from the development does not go to the polluting giant China, as he contended," Mason wrote.

"As pointed out by The Globe and Mail’s fine energy reporter, Shawn McCarthy, nearly all of it is consumed in Canada and the United States, which Mr. Young has called home since the 1960s."

Maclean's Econowatch blogger Andrew Leach, an economist at the University of Alberta, wrote Friday that Young exaggerated the scale of proposed oil sands development. Young claims the land area covering Alberta's oil sands deposits, which he equates to the size of England, will all be disturbed by mining.

As Mason noted, Young's premature on the China export front, though some oil sands production likely is destined for Asia if the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines are approved.

Young is also on shaky ground claiming oil sands projects produces as much carbon dioxide daily as "all the automobiles in Canada," said Leach.

"Young was very clear in his interviews that he believed Canadians were subject to misinformation from politicians and the oil industry," Leach concluded. "That is often the case. However, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander, so Mr, Young might want to take a little more care himself."

[ Related: Neil Young's anti-oilsands tour hits Calgary Sunday ]

Young undermines his position when he tosses out debatable facts, which is regrettable because, as Mason points out, he's on much firmer ground when it comes to treatment of First Nations.

"His contention that treaties in Canada have not been honoured, in many cases, is indisputable," Mason wrote.

Young may also be right on Shell's proposed expansion, he added. noting the joint review panel that approved it raised a number of concerns about the loss of wildlife habitat, other environmental impacts and aboriginal complains about the lack of consultation.

"Like the singer himself, this issue is complicated and open to criticism," Mason said.

Collyer wrote that citizens need "a broad understanding of the balances suite of facts" about the oil sands industry's benefits and risks.

But asking for balanced facts suggests an equivalency that may not exist. How much fact-checking has there been on the industry's ad campaign painting the industry as benign?

The best we as Canadians should hope for is that when the facts are weighed, no one's finger is on the scale.