Neil Young says that his parents raised him to do two things. “ Keep your word. And clean up your mess.”
The iconic Canadian rocker told reporters today that the federal government has done neither. It has failed to keep the promises of the treaties. It has failed to properly oversee oilsands development and the consequence has been the devastation of the land around Fort MacMurray.
Young’s response has been a a four city benefit concert tour to raise money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s (ACFN) Legal Defense Fund. He told a press conference earlier today that he hopes the benefit concerts will raise a minimum of $300,000.
Young did not shy away from the controversy that has followed his tour. Instead, he addressed it head on, telling reporters, “ This is not about me. This is not about whether I’m qualified to talk about this. “
Much of the coverage of the concert tour in recent days by other media outlets has centered on some of the colourful language Young has used to describe the impact of the oilsands on the landscape around Fort Mac Murray. The rock star did not back down from those earlier comments; in fact, he followed them with a dramatic prediction of what would happen if treaties with First Nations were not honoured, a pronouncement that will no doubt garner attention in some other media outlets.
But the real purpose of the tour is to Defend the Treaties. and Young was accompanied by a number of people with something to say about those issues, including Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, other ACFN officials, guests from Treaty 4 First Nations, renowned ecologist David Schindler and legendary environmentalist David Suzuki..
The leaders from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) said that their legal battles, and the tour, should be not viewed as an attack on a single industry, but rather as a declaration of the need to assert ACFN’s treaty rights. Indeed, the First Nation reaffirmed in a statement earlier this week, “The ACFN maintains a position of not being against development, but rather are working towards achieving responsible and just relationships, governance, development and economies.”
ACFN leaders believe, however, that the Harper government has been acting in bad faith, despite the First Nation’ s repeated attempts over the last several years to engage in productive negotiations with Ottawa and with companies like Shell who are pushing for further development. On January 13th, the band announced that it has filed an application to overturn the federal government’s recent decision to approve the Shell Jackpine Mine Expansion project.
“This is not an anti-oilsands campaign,” said Chief Adam, noting that his First Nation has been fully engaged in the oilsands for 20 years., and many of its members work in the oilsands and pay taxes to the federal government. “ It’s about our treaty rights.”
A key issue driving the lawsuit is that 80% of the traditional territories of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation are inaccessible for large periods of the year thanks to oil sands development. The new Jackpine Mine development will place further restrictions on access to traditional lands, in particular a protection zone north of the Firebag River specifically highlighted by ACFN elders in a 2010 declaration.
“This area is critical to the survival of our treaty rights, “ declared Eriel Deranger from ACFN. She noted that ACFN has been offered impact benefit agreements by the companies involved in the proposed development, but has refused, opting instead to spend its own resources on the lawsuit. She insisted, “ It doesn’t matter how much money they throw at us.” The First Nation is determined to fight for land that their elders believe to be sacred.
ACFN has also been forced to provide funding to environmental studies in the area, in large part because the federal government will not. (Of course, that would require a federal government interested in scientific research, even when they don’t like the results).
In recent days, oil and gas industry leaders, including the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, have suggested that Neil Young’s concert tour is detrimental to the interests of First Nations communities, pointing to all of the jobs and economic development generated by the oilsands. But David Schindler described today the less positive impact that oilsands development is having on many Northern Alberta communities.
Schindler has authored numerous studies which indicate that the oilsands have contributed substantially to the pollution of the Athabasca River. That pollution has had demonstrable impacts upon human health, and on animal populations important to the traditional lifestyles of First Nations people in the region. Schindler noted, for example, that caribou populations in the area may already be in such rapid decline that they will not be able to recover. He also suggested that reclamation of the areas already ravaged by oilsands development to a “natural state” will be difficult, predicting that reclaimed lakes would likely, at best, resemble the saline Manitou Lake near Watrous.
A number of the panelists also waded into a debate that erupted in Saskatchewan earlier this week. Chief Adam praised Tenelle Starr, a 13 year old member of the StarBlanket First Nation, who garnered unwanted media attention when she was asked by her school to remove a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “Got Land? Thank an Indian.” He said that the responsibility for all that Tenelle has suffered over the last few days, including many of the hurtful comments posted on the teen’s Facebook page, rested with the teachers who originally demanded that she remove her shirt. He expressed his unconditional support for the teen. “ If they want to bombard my Facebook, “ he laughed, “they can go right ahead. “