Criticism should bring Young down

“Old man” tells you why you shouldn’t be helpless in face of Alberta’s cowboys in the oil sands

Neil Young has recently spoken out against the expansion of oil sands development, like this Syncrude plant.
Neil Young has recently spoken out against the expansion of oil sands development, like this Syncrude plant.
Credit: 
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Maria Stellato, ArtSci ’14

“Rock stars don’t need oil” and a comparison of Fort McMurray to Hiroshima are probably two quotes you’ve heard about Neil Young’s recent comments on Shell’s Jackpine oil sands expansion onto Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation territory.

At the very least, they were the first comments I’d ever heard regarding the Jackpine oil sands expansion, despite two years of ongoing legal battles.

Is it ignorance that kept me from being informed on this issue? Is it only because a celebrity mentioned it that suddenly, not only I, but the whole country is paying attention? That’s very likely the case.

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio, Young replied incredulously to the insinuation that celebrities should detach themselves from political activism, saying: “Musicians should stay out of politics? Is that a great Canadian belief, that your profession should be weighed carefully when stating beliefs? Haven’t I always written and sang about what concerned me?”

I don’t think he’s wrong, but perhaps what he needed was a bit more caution with his words.

On Sunday, Young began his four-city tour in Toronto; a tour solely about activism. Its title, “Honour the Treaties” is a demand for the Canadian government to respect the constitutionally-entrenched right of First Nations communities to be consulted in the case of potential infringement by corporations or policies on their cultural grounds.

As it stands, the “Honour the Treaties” tour isn’t in promotion of a new album, and Young will make little money over it. All proceeds will go to financing the continuing legal costs for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation community.

Of course, Young is no stranger to the political stage. Since the 1970s, he’s been vocal about North American political and social issues, such as homelessness, the degradation of the environment and the Bush administration’s military policies. Despite the more pastoral nature of Harvest (1972), as he mentioned in his diatribe on CBC Radio, many of his better-known songs, such as “Southern Man,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “Ohio” are very explicit in their political content.

Raising awareness for any cause needs both publicity and money. Celebrities aren’t exactly short on either one. The history of celebrities as spokespeople in Western culture goes back for about a century — further than I can trace in a single opinion piece.

From Orson Welles to Warren Beatty to modern day activist powerhouses Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, some of society’s most rich and influential have historically taken some of their wealth and put it to honourable use.

Another example of this unselfish intent is the late and great Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor, whose philanthropic endeavours focused on — but were not limited to — advocacy for AIDS.

She was one of the first celebrities to show consideration and tolerance to the stigmatized victims, and co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). She was also a compassionate woman who discreetly visited hospitalized patients, both friend and strangers, and paid their medical expenses.

Not every celebrity activist, musician or actor sets out to be the next Elizabeth Taylor, but that doesn’t make his or her contribution invalid.

As a society, we place grand importance on the lives of the rich and famous. If they do something, we — the students, the workforce and the people who watch television or read a paper — are going to hear about it, whether it’s positive or negative. It’s beneficial that they can use their fame as an instrument to promote awareness to their chosen cause, because it sparks public interest and support.

Of course, the role of celebrities as activists is problematic in the sense that we run the risk of perpetuating the idea of a celebrity as someone to be idolized.

John Lennon, for example, is still posthumously touted as a great peace activist. The positive image he construed in the 1970s with his political activism and lyrics, followed by his untimely murder, resulted in his societal deification and the world forgetting about his alleged domestic abuse.

In fairness to Neil Young, I don’t think he’s set out to deify himself or to proclaim to be a champion of a group of people to which he doesn’t belong. I can’t agree more with the message of the tour: Canada has a responsibility to respect both the land and culture of the First Nations community.

The injustice of this particular situation, however, is that the attention is detracted from the indigenous community. It’s making headlines, but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of being reported as a matter of politics and cultural importance, it’s reported as celebrity news.

Young, who declared the issue to be “worse than Hiroshima”, doesn’t help this. This grandiose comparison to nuclear devastation is certainly startling and altogether insensitive. No two tragedies are comparable in the first place, and seeing as over 100,000 civilians were killed in the Hiroshima bombing, he hasn’t done much for the cause apart from stirring controversy.

Thus the focus swings from what the struggle means for the community of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to outlandish comments that are followed up with the quote: “I want my grandchildren to look up and see a blue sky.” While his comment is sincere in its pleasant imagery, he undermines the indigenous struggle by transferring generational succession of the land onto his own descendants.

The fact that he makes these comments from a settler’s perspective may problematize the tour’s authenticity, but I don’t doubt his intentions are pure. The problem of expansion onto First Nations land is one that is ongoing and worthy of attention.

I’m sure Neil Young has a heart of gold, and though I do believe that humanity needs its heroes, those who wish to step up to the plate should perhaps choose their words more wisely so that they don’t undermine their intentions.

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