When Neil Young first heard about the plight of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, he was halfway between San Francisco and Northern Alberta in an electric car (likely his LincVolt), making a movie about CO2 and transportation.
"This car was a 6,500-pound vehicle," said Young, speaking at a press conference at Massey Hall on Sunday for his Honor The Treaties Tour in support of the ACFN legal defense. "We were making the point that you didn't need oil, you didn't need fossil fuels, there were other ways to get around."
The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation is challenging the Canadian government and oil companies, including Shell Canada, over the recently federally approved Jackpine Mine Expansion project, the proposed Pierre River Mine (also a Shell project) and other projects. The ACFN have also filed a review of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, which they feel does not adequately address their Treaty Rights or protect their land.
Chief Allan Adam, who also sat on the panel at Massey Hall, said that when he was elected six years ago, he ran on a platform of cashing in on the economic development in the region - he says there are 17 ACFN-affiliated and owned companies working directly with the oil sands and Fort McMurray - but almost immediately after being elected he was responding to a community health study, which voiced concerns about elevated rates of rare cancers in the community.
"In the last two months we had nine deaths, and roughly five of them were from cancer," he said. "My next door neighbour passed away about a month and a half ago and his sister had passed away just a few days before him - we buried both of them the same day in the community of Fort Chip[ewyan]."
"We're not saying we want to stop industry altogether," he added, "but if we don't have the regulatory component to it, we cannot control industry and they can control it to the bare minimums - and that's what they are doing."
Young took shots at the Harper government, calling it a "very poor imitation of the George Bush administration in the United States" and "an embarrassment to many Canadians."
But he also implicated Canadians in the oil sands expansion and Canada's treatment of First Nations people, saying, "We are here. We made a deal with these people. We are breaking our promise. We are killings these people - the blood of these people will be on modern Canada's hands and it will be as a result of not just a slow thing, but of a fast and horrific thing if this [development] continues."
Young's description of visiting the tar sands was harrowing. "[I experienced] this unbelievable smell and toxicity in my throat," he said. "My eyes were burning. And that started 25 miles away from the Tar Sands, when I was in Fort Mac, and it got more intense." His son, who has cerebral palsy, was wearing a protective mask. "The one we saw [one of 50 sites] was the cleanest one, the best looking one," he said. "And it's one of the ugliest things I've ever seen."
Young concluded by urging Canadians to do their research and find out what's going on with the tar sands, and think about their grandchildren and their grandchildren's grandchildren, not just their immediate job issues.
"Try to look forward," he said. "Try to come up with alternatives to a dirty future based on fossil fuels. Develop a way out. There is a door that could open up into the sunshine. This is not a good place for us to be right now."