Questioning the oil industry in Canada today is like questioning apartheid in South Africa in the early 1950s[i]: few are willing to rock the boat. The rules have changed so much, and voices that we used to hear in the media and in public are no longer welcome. There’s an incredible amount of self-censorship, and few are willing to question the people who are now making the rules, even when they change those rules for the benefit of themselves and their small circle of friends.

Friday’s Leader-Post is indicative of that feeling. Neil Young has become Emmanuel Goldstein in western Canada’s government- and corporate-sponsored three-minute hate. There’s a really dumb editorial by an Edmonton Journal cartoonist. Murray Mandryk’s editorial page column – by a long shot, the dumbest thing he’s ever written – is a character smear against Young for his four city tour bringing attention to the plight of aboriginal people affected by tar sands development.

And John Gormley … well, I don’t think there’s hope for him.

As well, in the business section, there’s a page-two story about how the oil industry must mount an ‘information’ campaign to counter those greedy environmentalists. I mean, who cares about the air we breathe and the water we drink? We’ve got a quarterly share dividend to meet!

The last time I saw such unbalanced journalism in the Leader-Post, the Roughriders had just won the Grey Cup.

The federal government, whose ruling political party is extensively financially backed by the oil industry, is in the process of destroying its libraries full of information on Canada’s environment. The federal government is also either firing scientists who were involved in environmental research or repressing their studies. The federal government has rewritten the roles for everything from pipeline building to tar sands development in order to shut out opponents to those projects. The oil industry is demanding the right to build pipelines hither and yon to export raw bitumen (Mandryk mocks Young’s claim that the bitumen will end up in China. So where is the bitumen from the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that cuts through British Columbia supposed to end up? Gilligan’s Island?).

In short, if the increasing use of non-renewable resources in general, and tar sands development in particular, is so environmentally benign, as they claim, then why has the oil industry and the federal government gone out of their way to destroy or suppress the very scientific information which would prove – or disprove – their point?

As a good friend of mine who works in the oil industry once explained to me, if development in the tar sands slows down, the oil industry will just speed up development in places such as the –stans, the now independent former Soviet Union republics in central Asia (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, etc.). There’s almost no environmental regulation or enforcement in those countries. So if Canada and the provinces want the revenue that the tar sands can bring, they – meaning we – are just going to have to do what the oil industry wants. Close your eyes and think of Sidney Crosby.

It’s also interesting to note that the decision to allow Shell to expand its bitumen mining area on Treaty 8 land is an abandonment of responsibility by the federal government to aboriginal people and a violation of the treaty process. Harper’s government’s policy towards aboriginal people is little different than the policy of the federal government in the 1880s.[ii]

By accepting apartheid as gospel, white South Africans willingly became blind to the devastation it was causing to the majority of people who lived in the country. Apartheid didn’t bring them peace of mind – it instead bred a collective neurosis that reduced its society to an economic and cultural mess by the time Mandela was released from jail in 1990. It also blinded South African business to the idea of developing an economic class of well-off black people who would have a stake in the economy as consumers (why would you want to keep 23 million people poor when your country has less than 35 million people living there in the first place?). Only after a generation of being an international pariah – and finding out, through Nelson Mandela’s leadership, that majority democratic rule wasn’t the end of the world — did South Africans find out that the philosophical basis for apartheid was a crock of, well, you know.

It’s the same way here. We’re blind to the environmental degradation caused by fracking, by tar sands development, by climate change because the oil companies don’t want us to know. We’ve gotten kind of well off by it, but it hasn’t made us happier. We know something’s wrong, but we can’t say what it is – at least in public. We’re blind to the economic potential of developing renewable energy resources because a few rich people may get their feelings hurt.

At his age, and with his musical record respectable and intact, nobody would blame Neil Young if he just stayed on Broken Arrow Ranch with his children and his model trains, limiting his love of nature to the occasional golf game. Instead, Neil’s on this quixotic campaign where he has no real skin in the game, apart from a strong sense of justice and doing what he thinks is right. The federal and Saskatchewan governments have a lot more on the line – the oil companies are like Hulk. You wouldn’t like it if Hulk got mad.

Neil Young is asking us to take a good look at what’s going on in our world, and how we let it get to this point. If there’s something the matter with examining that, it isn’t Neil Young’s fault. When you throw a stick at a pack of dogs, the ones who howl are the ones you’ve hit.

[i] Expect a lot of South African political references from Rosie for the next few months: since the death of Nelson Mandela I’ve been reading a lot of biographies about the man.

[ii] When federal representatives and the chiefs of the Plains Cree and Sioux nations of what is now southern Saskatchewan and southeastern Manitoba signed Treaty 4 in September 1874, part of the negotiated land reserve was along the Qu’Appelle Valley along the Echo, Mission, Pasqua  and Katepwa lakes. However, the federal government thought that area would also be a good place to live, so around 1880, the federal government forced the aboriginal people out of the area settled them in the area north of present-day Balcarres. Their descendants are the File Hills First Nations – Star Blanket, Peepeekisis, Okanese and Little Bear.

The Qu’Appelle Valley area was considered for a future capital city by the federal government, but land speculators bought the land first. Canada’s Governor General, Edgar Dewdney, decided to move the capital of the North West Territories to an area of the bad prairie where he had some land. It just so happened that the Canadian Pacific Railway would be built nearby – funny how that happens. The North West Mounted Police, coincidentally or not, set up a detachment on land next door to Dewdney’s. That became Regina.