Neil Young staging concerts across Canada to support fight against Alberta oil sands

Steve Mertl
·National Affairs Contributor
Neil Young performs during the Farm Aid 2013 concert at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. Young is scheduling four concerts in Canada to benefit a northern Alberta aboriginal band fighting oilsands development in its territory.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Hans Pennink

When rock legend Neil Young compared Fort McMurray to Hiroshima last fall, supporters of Alberta's oil sands industry centred there rolled their eyes.

Nothing to see here, folks. Just another piece of celebrity sanctimony.

Well, the Canadian-born Young is putting his time and money where his mouth is. He plans to stage a series of concerns to raise money for a northern Alberta First Nation fighting oil sands development, The Canadian Press reports.

Young, who was born in Toronto but has lived in the United States for most of his life, is organizing four Canadian concerts scheduled for next month in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. Tickets are set to go on sale Tuesday.

“The theme of the concerts is honour the treaties," Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation spokeswoman Eriel Deranger told CP, which will receive the benefit. “All the ticket sales, all the proceeds from the concerts, not a single cent goes to anyone other than [the First Nation].”

[ Related: Neil Young slams oil sands, compares Fort McMurray to Hiroshima ]

The concert will also feature jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall, originally from Nanaimo, B.C., which means it's possible her husband Elvis Costello could show up too.

Young caused a stir last September when when he told listeners at a Washington, D.C., event supporting clean-energy legislation that he'd visited Fort McMurray and found the vast open-pit mining around the city "a wasteland" akin to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb blast.

"People are sick. People are dying of cancer because of this," he said. "All the First Nations people up there are threatened by this.”

Aboriginal communities, while reaping some financial benefits from the resource extraction, have said the emissions from oil sands production has polluted their traditional lands and increased the cancer risk among residents. They say the industry is expanding without adequate consultation with First Nations.

Plenty of celebrities have flown in to scope out the oil sands, including Canadian film director James Cameron (Titanic} and star Darryl Hannah. All have offered help to the industry's opponents but Deranger said Young's is the biggest by far.

“When he left, we didn’t ask him," she told CP. "We were kind of surprised by his, ‘I’m going to do something for you.’ We’ve heard that before.

“It’s fantastic to have someone follow through and giving directly to a community, the grassroots people.”

[ Related: Canada’s natural resources minister challenges Hollywood’s Robert Redford over Keystone pipeline ]

The Athabasca Chipewyan are preparing for a court case against a federal decision last week to approve Shell Canada's expansion of its Jackpine oil sands mine, doubling its production, CP said. An environmental review panel concluded it would mean the permanent loss of 8,500 hectares of wetlands, harming animal and plant life for generations.

“The finances that will come from [the concerts] will be beneficial,” Deranger told CP. “This type of financial fundraising strategy with such a big name can make or break our ability to move forward with a large legal strategy.”

A spokeswoman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers wasn't fazed by Young's plan.

“We would also encourage Mr. Young and his fans to learn about the innovation and technical advances that are helping to develop oil sands and develop responsibly," said Geraldine Anderson.

For his part, Young on his website has questioned whether reclamation of oil sands mine sites can ever really restore the land.

Athabasca Chipewayan Chief Allan Adam told CBC News the concerts have been in the works since August as part of the First Nation's effort to kill the Jackpine expansion project.

"The momentum is going to be growing," he said. "I think there's going to be a great push back from the greater public."