by Etan Vlessing
"The blood of these people are on modern Canada's hands," said the veteran rocker, who will perform benefit concerts to mount a legal challenge against Alberta's tar sands development.
TORONTO – It has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood thriller: Big Oil mines Canada's vast oil reserves upstream from a First Nation community, while one man, a rock legend, spearheads a legal fight to avert environmental catastrophe.
That rock legend is Neil Young, who on Sunday said Canada's leaders are ridding Alberta of its First Nation communities with its giant oil sands development.
"We are killing these people. The blood of these people are on modern Canada's hands. And it will be the result not of a slow thing, but a fast, horrific thing if this continues," Young said at a press conference, citing alarming environmental destruction.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was in Toronto to play the first of four Honor the Treaties benefit concerts as part of his 2014 tour to raise money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) legal defense fund.
The aim is to stop expanding oil sands mining by Shell Oil Canada on protected treaty lands.
"These people are not going to sit back and let Canada, the modern Canada, roll over them," Young said.
Development of Alberta's tar sands calls for a heavy crude oil called bitumen to be extracted from beneath pristine wilderness, with potentially dire consequences for local eco-systems.
The ACFN, based in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, contends that oil sands development directly impacts the land on which they hunt, fish and trap, and so their culture and identity.
The First Nation community has asked Canada's federal court to review Ottawa's decision to allow Shell Oil to expand its Jackpine mine, which is on ACFN land protected by treaty agreements.
ACFN chief Allan Adam told the press conference that Ottawa's newly minted environmental assessment legislation, which expands Alberta's oilsands exploration, is out of control.
"We have a runaway train without a conductor controlling it. That will lead into something that will be catastrophic [to the environment]. So we have to get a grip on it," Adam urged.
That environmental threat has put the ACFN front and center in a growing tar sands controversy that has Young as its main Canadian spokesman.
Young, who reached the crest of rock stardom with songs like "Heart of Gold," "Old Man" and "Rockin' in the Free World," said the Canadian government was siding with Big Oil and against the First Nations by breaking treaty agreements.
"I see a government that is completely out of control. Money is No. 1. Integrity isn't even on the map," he said.
To fend off the ACFN's legal challenge, Ottawa has hired international PR firm FleishmannHillard to promote the tar sands and Canada's oil sector.
As in the U.S. where celebrities like Daryl Hannah, Brad Pitt, Robert Redford and Matt Damon lead the fight for ecological protections, environmental groups are turning to celebrities like Young to be green advocates.
The Honor the Treaties concerts in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary will help finance the ACFN lawsuit filed against Shell Oil for breaching contractual agreements signed over two open-pit-mining tar sands projects.
The ACFN does not oppose Alberta's oil sands development outright, and operates companies that service the province's energy sector centered in Fort McMurray. But the First Nation community wants oil sands development that protects treaty rights and traditional land uses.
"Until government and industry can prove to our nation that these areas can be developed in a way that is responsible, and that our rights will not be negated or molested by this development, we will continue to hold the line to stop development in those regions," ACFN communications director Eriel Deranger said at the press conference.
Young said he visited Alberta's oil sands development, driving around the region in an electric car, to witness the province's environmental destruction and its impact on the ACFN firsthand.
As part of his benefit concerts, Young will screen a 12-minute documentary by Peter Mettler, Petropolis, that shows an aerial perspective of the Alberta tar sands development.
"It is the most devastating thing you will ever see. It is the greediest, most destructive and disrespectful demonstration of something run amok that you will ever see," Young argued, likening the impact of the Canadian oil development on Fort McMurray to Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb.
ACFN chief Adam said the First Nation will use the courts to resolve legal issues with the federal government and Shell Oil before considering alternative action.
"When all legal avenues are exhausted in more ways than one, who can hold a nation accountable when it says enough is enough and shuts down the highway," Adam said when asked what the ACFN will do if its legal challenge does not succeed.
Diana Krall is opening for Young during his Honor the Treaties concerts, to run through Jan. 19 with a final stop in Calgary, Alberta.