Neil Young leverages fame to shine spotlight on Alberta oilsands

Neil Young leverages fame to shine spotlight on Alberta oilsands

As perhaps Canada’s most famous singer, when Neil Young opens his mouth people tend to listen. That has been the case through his illustrious career and now, as the 68-year-old positions himself as the face of a battle against Alberta’s oilsands.

Young launched a concert series designed to raise money and draw attention to oilsands development, which he has famously compared to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb dropped. The “Honour the Treaties” tour launched in Toronto over the weekend and will roll across Western Canada before culminating in Calgary on Sunday.

At a press conference ahead of the Toronto concert, he said something must be done about the Alberta oilsands, which he said are scarring the Canadian landscape and threatening nearby First Nation communities – if not everyone else in the country.

"I want my grandchildren to grow up, and look up and see a blue sky and have dreams that their grandchildren are going to do great things. I do see that today in Canada. I see a government just completely out of control," Young told reporters in attendance. "Money is number one. Integrity isn't even on the map."

As the legend goes, famed Canadian rocker Neil Young visited the Alberta tarsands in September and, upon hearing the plight of the neighbouring Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, asked, “What can I do?”

The answer, like so many celebrity advocates before him, was obvious: leverage his fame and popularity to bring attention to the cause.

“It has taken someone like Neil Young, an iconic, legendary musician, to bring our issue to the forefront and become a real part of the Canadian discourse,” ACFN executive assistant Eriel Deranger told Yahoo Canada News.

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“This is something that we have been struggling with for over a decade. The fact that we have to have a huge, iconic musician to bring it forward is a little bit sad.”

The benefits of Young’s participation are obvious. The tour is helping focus attention on the issue. Beyond that, proceeds are helping finance a legal defence launched by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation – which is located near the oilsands and claims the development is responsible for a rash of health issues.

But Young’s participation could have some drawbacks as well. He has put a celebrity face to anti-oilsands lobbyists, but that has also established a tangible opponent for proponents to address. When Young attacks Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday, he opened himself up for a counter-attack.

Harper’s spokesman Jason MacDonald told the Canadian Press that “Canada’s natural resources sector is and has always been a fundamental part of our country’s economy. Even the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day.”

Others, especially in the water cooler-conversations on social media, agreed. Some called out Young as an entertainer pandering for relevance. Others dismissed him as past his prime an irrelevant. Then there were those who suggested he keep his mouth shut and stick to music.

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"Musicians should stay out of politics?" Young rhetorically asked in an exclusive interview with CBC Radio's Jian Ghomeshi. "Is that a great Canadian belief? Is it that your profession should be considered and weighed carefully when deciding whether you have freedom of speech? That just doesn't make sense to me. Those are ludicrous comments that have nothing to do with reality. Those are defensive maneuvers, deflecting the truth away from people's sense of what is going on."

Mark Cooper, manager of oil sands communications for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, agreed that Young has a right to express his opinions. The problem is when that much-heard opinion carries incorrect information.

"Firstly, we respect peoples’ right to their opinions – it’s fundamental in our society," Cooper wrote in an email to Yahoo Canada News.

"At the same time, we believe reasonable people recognize these anti-fossil fuel arguments are unrealistic– the world needs all forms of energy, developed responsibly to meet its needs. When it comes to the oil sands, we respect that Neil Young has a democratic right to be wrong."

Cooper says the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is working hard to foster a positive relationship with aboriginal communities and understand their needs. It could be argued that, if there is progress being made, the international shine that Young’s position brings could distort the conversation.

Young has intentionally wandered into the touchy territory of celebrity activism, where stars and musicians leverage their fading fame to bring attention to a chosen cause. It is a world where Dennis Rodman can remain somewhat relevant by rallying (albeit incoherently) for peaceful relations with North Korea, or where Pamela Anderson can still make headlines for defending animal rights.

Unlike those two, however, Young's career isn't over. Despite being 68 years old, he still tours. And he possesses the gravitas of decades as Canada's most celebrated musician. Perhaps that moves him more in line with Bono or Sean Penn than Anderson and Rodman, but his role as advocate still threatens to cloud his legacy as an artist.

Surely, he is comfortable with that. Young is no stranger to protest – either in his music or his life. But can the message survive under the considerable weight of Young’s fame? Deranger says yes.

The attention and the publicity are invaluable. We are now able to engage the Canadian public and even international public on an issue that we have been struggling to get to the attention of politicians in the province of Alberta, let alone the federal government,” she said.

Young’s tour will move on to Winnipeg on Thursday, Regina on Friday and culminate in Calgary on Sunday. And headlines will be made along the way. Fame leveraged, attention draw. And all for the best, it would seem.

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