Thursday, January 23, 2014

Was It Worth the 15 Minutes of Fame?

Fort Chipewyan, Alberta

I am a beneficiary of Neil Young’s 2014 Canadian tour, or rather my First Nation Athabasca Chipewyan is.

At the beginning of this year, musician Neil Young began a four-city “Honour the Treaties” tour to raise money for litigation to stop Shell’s Jackpine oil sands mine expansion near Fort McMurray, Alberta.  After expenses, all proceeds raise from the four-concert tour is to go to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation for their litigation defence fund. According to media reports, the amount raised was approximately half a million dollars. A second fundraising contest, to win tickets for the concert and other promotional gifts, ran online at the same time as the concert.  It netted an additional approximately $77,000.   Not bad for a week’s work!

The title of the benefit concert series was “Honouring the Treaties,” although the organizers ought to have titled it “Canada’s Hiroshima” because our Treaty was not the main focus. There was no real conversation on the Treaty, certainly not in any meaningful way, because the emphasis was placed on what Neil was saying.

However, Neil didn’t seem to know enough about the Treaty to speak on this subject, so he
talked about what he knew, and his message was overwhelmingly anti-oil and anti-industry. Even our Chief deferred to Neil.  Our Chief, who was on stage for all of the pre-concert press conferences was virtually silent. It appeared to those of us on the sideline that it continues to be acceptable to allow well intended non-natives speak for us, even in the 21st century.

Neil pulled no punches at his first press conference at Massey Hall, in Toronto, Ontario, where he repeated his earlier analogy of Fort McMurray’s oil sands industry to that of Hiroshima. The intent was to be provocative and controversial, and it was that and more. 

That said there was a small “teach-in” after the press conference prior to the last concert, but by that time, media had fatigue, and even APTN didn’t file a report on this portion of the tour.  There was virtually no news about the “teach-in,” presumably put on to provide information on the Treaties, the one area where information had been lacking on tour.  Regrettably, it came too late to be newsworthy. The story of that day was that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers left after Neil and David Suzuki would not accommodate their request for a neutral moderator for a debate.

According to the tour organizers, the tour was an overwhelming success. Media, politicians and the public alike responded on a very emotional and visceral level to what Neil was saying. The conversation that followed was very polarized, much of it played out on social media.

Actually, at this moment the public relations battle may have been won.  The tour generated support from many quarters.  But it is also possible that we have not seen the full extent of the ramifications resulting from this anti-oil campaign yet. And I have no doubt, if there are any negative implications, it would not be Neil Young who will bear the brunt, but the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
I am of very mixed feelings about the tour. On one hand, I am very proud that our Chief was able to gain the attention of and partner with a high profile celebrity to draw attention to our plight and to raise much-needed funds for litigation.  In my immediate family, Neil Young has always been held in high esteem for his musicianship and songwriting.  Last Christmas, long before Neil became involved with our First Nation, I bought Hubby a very expensive set of Blu-ray discs that are the first instalment of Neil’s Archives as well as Neil’s book Waging Heavy Peace.

On the other hand, I also feel cheated and duped. I feel that the response to Neil’s celebrity and his flamboyant rhetoric overrode our First Nation’s interests and the balanced message our Chief started out expressing. Clearly, the entire tour was on his terms, or at least the media coverage of the tour gave that strong impression. One of the organizers admitted as much, that it was Neil who decided who was on stage with them when an appeal was made to include Dene elders at the press conference.  When I recommended that the message be clarified and moved to a more balanced one, away from the virulent anti-oil and anti-industry position, I was told that Neil’s publicists and the inner group didn’t want to appear they were backing down.  At that point, it became clear that the tour ostensibly about Treaties, was really about anti-oil at all costs.

If the intention was actually about honouring our Treaty, there should have been an effort to engage the public in a transformational conversation about how the treaty is a living document and is just as relevant today as the day it was signed.  Instead the Treaty became secondary, almost an afterthought.

The tour had an opportunity to identify specific serious breaches resulting of the Treaty.  Our Treaty means to us reconciliation, coexistence and sharing.  It also means honouring and protecting the earth and its plants and animals.  

Our Treaty position is not anti-development; it is that development must be carefully scrutinized and justified so that economic gain does not come at too great a cost to our land and our way of life. That should have been the headline. 
  • The approval of the Jackpine expansion should be challenged.  From what I understand it poses too great a risk to the environment.  We have to figure out where to draw the line.
  • The tour could have started a conversation on how our First Nation does not live on a reserve because the reserve land set aside for us is virtually inhabitable. And because we are not on a reserve, exemptions enjoyed by other First Nations are not available to us.
  • It could have brought to the conversation how the Bennett Dam in BC wiped out our traditional trapping and harvesting lifestyle in one season by draining the lake that fed the delta where our people had always harvested. Our members who relied on their traditional occupation were forced to seek alternative employment with industry.
  • The tour could have brought to the conversation that the “cows and ploughs” clause in the Treaty remains unresolved.   This means that the main economic development provision in our Treaty remains unfulfilled.
At this critical point in development, with pressure for expansion on all fronts and an ongoing weakening by the federal government for environmental protections, it is vital that we hold industry accountable.  But I don’t think taking the fight public by shaming and over the top rhetoric was the correct way to get there.  Or at least, at the conclusion of the tour, there should have been a gesture of reconciliation, or a willingness to coexist with industry and an attempt to heal wounded feelings that the tour had caused.

Our First Nation’s relationship with the oil industry is complex.  It is an intricate dance, of give and take, balancing the economic benefits with our responsibility to maintain the integrity of the environment.  We assert our legal rights but always with an awareness that we cannot “match industry dollar for dollar,” as Neil mistakenly put it at one of the press conferences.  A half-million dollar legal defence fund is a grain of sand in the multi-billion dollar energy juggernaut that is the Alberta oil sands.

We are mindful of our traditional harvesting activities, protecting the sensitive wetlands, other pristine ecosystems, and our culture. Our elders advise the process. We jointly work with industry, ironing out these elements as we draft our impact benefit agreements. And again when we partner with them on contracts through our company. It is at this stage where we can’t give up, where we can make the changes required. It is not an easy task, but a necessary one to ensure that this equilibrium is preserved. This relationship took years to cultivate.

The fact is that just about everything we own is directly or indirectly paid for with revenue from the oil sands industry.  We are proud owners of a multi million-dollar company, ACDEN, that services the industry around Fort McMurray.  We own a $38 million state of the art building occupied by ACDEN, which is made possible by revenues from industry.  Our programs, environmental studies, and elders meetings, are all funded by industry dollars.  There are many examples, but the point is the fabric of our community is directly interwoven with the oil industry and whether we want to admit it, we are dependent on it for the livelihood of our members.

I am afraid that the tour’s negative oil campaign, and the notoriety of partnering with Neil Young, may have put us on a self-destructive path. The momentum the tour started has left us in a position that may make it increasingly difficult to continue to partner with industry. The rhetoric generated by the tour seems to have put us in a position that we have to make a choice: are we with industry or against it? Until now we have been able to take a balanced position:  we support responsible development and oppose development that is not responsible.  We partner with industry when it conducts itself responsibly and respectfully.  Now it is beginning to feel as if we have to take a stand.  A choice must be made, are we with industry or against it. We can’t be both. We can’t one day be slamming industry in the media, and the next day sit across from them in a boardroom hashing out contracts without having that impact the negotiation on some level.  You have to be all the way in or you have to be all the way out.

I feel today that the gamble that our leaders have taken with our corporation and the livelihood of our members is reckless.  At this point I am not sure if it was worth the half a million dollars we got for litigation from the tour. That will remain to be determined.

I regret that this tour, and some statements by Neil, that has such potential to shed light on our situation and bring understanding to the complexity of our circumstances, has instead insulted and offended not only those oil industry partners who have conducted business in a responsible manner, but also the municipality of Fort McMurray, and not least of all the hard-working people who make a living in this industry.

And while I would like to be on the bandwagon cheering on our Chief with the rest of the activists, I find I simply can’t. It is lonely to feel like the odd person out, when so many First Nations and environmental activists are cheering on our Chief and the aggressive message that the tour has sent.  Many people who don’t fully understand our economics and how we are entwined to this industry just see us as the little guy fighting the giant. How can they not cheer for him?

I don’t make my living in this industry, and it would be easy for me to join the activist. I understand the arguments against development and the health issues surrounding industry. I understand, but I also understand the community has little choice, and they look to our leadership to mitigate these damages. 

 So why do I care so much?  Because it is my community, I was raised there, and I care what happens at the
community level.  I am certain the community is also conflicted about industry. Members from the community are going to work at camps for over 14 hours a day, living away from their families for days at a time, they are aware of what industry is about, but with few alternatives available, they make that choice for the betterment of their family.  It is a balancing act.  It has been for a long time now. How can you ask them to risk what they have sacrificed to have a roof over their head and food in their belly?

I know my position is not a popular one, and I am sure people will see me as a sell-out, and less of a warrior.  Some of my brothers confronted the FBI at Wounded Knee in the 1970s.  I come from a family of activists, so my position is that much more difficult.

It is essential to look beyond the emotional surface of the issues, and to deliberate them on deeper levels.  This is a community, where I grew up, that has struggled to overcome many hardships to be in the position we find ourselves, a position of economic influence, that is very close to economic independence from government funding because of our relationship with the oil industry.  The risks must be balanced against the probability of the success.

I can’t shake the feeling that there is too much at stake for my community and that the direction we take next will determine if we win or lose what Neil Young’s “Honouring the Treaties” Tour started.  All I know is that if I were Chief I would ensure that all of my members were on board, and I would discuss with them the risks and benefits of taking this stand. More importantly, I would get a clear mandate from my members moving forward. 

Indeed, something that began as positive and empowering has left a bad aftertaste, for me at least. I find myself surrounded by people with extreme opinions, extreme feelings, pride on one side and anger and resentment on the other.  It does not seem to bode well for our First Nation or for a calm discussion of what our Treaty means, and how it must be honoured.


TaiKee said...

What a fanatically written, well balanced article that REALLY covers the problem. We just cannot stop what so many rely on for a living. Some oil sands development is improving, and we cannot just stop. You are 100% correct though on focusing on what we need to - don't stop - regulate, improve, deny development when it really needs to be, and try to take all sides into account.

Thanks so much for this article. I appreciate the honesty it took.

ToBlog today said...

Thank you for your comment. The most difficult post I have written.

Unknown said...

It's about time that an opinion expressed that shows a well balanced view of the delicate balance of life for a First Nations person to view the both the past history and present reality of life in the tar sands , The future requires great leaders with open minds , with a foot in the past with an eye to the future to ensure the best possible outcome for the people of the Athabasca River and Delta .

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your honest, heartfelt article. I don't appreciate Mr. Young's paternalistic attitude in using your community as poster children for his agenda.

Michelle Boyd said...

Brilliant, balanced, and well-reasoned post. Thank you for your courage and your honesty in sharing your perspective-one that I'm pretty sure is shared by countless others.

Mags said...

What a great article. From the beginning that is what got me so upset about this tour is that it was stated it was for the treaties but Neil was so anti-oil. It did not look at all the issues.

Unknown said...

Thank you for such a well balanced, thoughtful and articulate article. I agree with you 100% I think that time, money, effort and energy is being wasted by both sides of the "all in" or "all out" factions. It is too late to stop oil and not too late to make sure that big oil companies comply with strict environmental practices so that we can protect the earth and continue to flourish as a nation that has always been dependent on its natural resources.

ToBlog today said...

Thank you D Harding, you are correct.
Tammie, The more I learn about Neil Young, the more I wish my Chief would distant himself from him.
Michelle, I hope you are right, I especially hope that the people from my community will see it this way too.
Mags, Thank you for your support. It means a lot to me. :)
And thank you Theresa, from McMurray Musings, for your kind blog post highlighting this blog.

ToBlog today said...

Laurel, I totally agree, and it is never too late.

Janet Widdicombe said...

Thanks for your article. You have a tough row to hoe as us old folks would say.It is hard to give up tradtional values but as an older person I must tell you that each and every person rich or poor on this planet have had to give up many things on their journey through life.But I want to encourage you that the truth will set you free and you will keep free.keep on keeping on.

Sandra Bessey said...

What was the objective of the tour:
1. To promote an aging musician and to recycle his vintage approach to antiestablishment? Grade: A+

2. To perpetuate the negative image of oil sand development? B+

3. To recognize the ongoing specific challenges faced by residents of Fort Chipewyan? D

Your essay, coming from a place of knowledge, brings the reality to the situation. Life does not happen in black or white but in the many mixes of grey.

Keep sharing your perspective so more voices can be heard.

Alan Pratt said...

This post contains some very important messages and should be read carefully by anyone who takes a simplistic view of First Nations/industry relations.

I am a lawyer who has represented First Nations for 30 years and this experience has made me very familiar with the situation described in this post. Most First Nations have to decide how and in what situations to use their aboriginal or treaty rights in court or at a negotiation table to defend their homes or their traditional way of life.

But at the same time many First Nations' traditional economies have been virtually destroyed by resource development, and in most places only those industries that have been so destructive offer any real hope of future employment and prosperity.

It is thus no wonder that the relationship between First Nations and industry are so complicated, particularly when we have a federal government that is at best paying lip service to its treaty obligations and encouraging development regardless of the environmental damage it may cause.

Most people do not want to think very hard about issues as complex as this. This post hits the nail on the head by reminding all of us, lawyers, Chiefs and rock stars included, that the stakes are high and that wisdom and balance must always be ingredients of reconciliation.

Kevin Philip Thornton said...

Thank you. That was the most balanced article I have read on the Neil Young news cycle. You are a very good writer.

f said...

Could not agree more with your points. Short term financial gain for long-term pain? The dance with "celebrities" as in this situation, may prove to be a dance with the devil.

Savage Management Ltd. said...

Thank you, thank you, Angelina.

I am writing a book on collaboration. I start with rejection of the dualistic right and wrong and go to One Yes.

Your blog gives me hope for respect,listening, collaboration and resolution based on respect.


Unknown said...

I have to say I was very impressed with your artical. It was nice to finally see a well balanced description of what the fight is really about. Not to often do you fined someone who can write so clearly and express things in a positive way and with explaining the negative without sounding harsh. This writing in this article is what's need in-order to get the message across. You don't need Neil Young or any outsiders trying to explain the reasoning behind the fight, you have expressed it here very clearly. Hope to read more of your articles.

Donn Lovett said...

You have captured the need for balance, it's triangular, Environment, Energy, Economy, I hope this will create a better conversation going forward, thank you so much.

Chris Hylton said...

Great addition to the debate Angelina! The hi-jacking of the message and the tour as you have suggested by "Neil’s publicists and the inner group (who) didn’t want to appear they were backing down." is a sad commentary on Young's motives.

The abundant resource based partnerships with industry, created by the hard work of your Chief and Councils over the years have been proven to be successful. Other success stories across our great land, proudly demonstrate that the path to the preservation of community culture, language, and traditions, lies with the powerful job creation and self-identity raising engine of economic development, not negativity.

While there is much work to be done in the Treaty area both here and in countless other communities across Canada, this debate is with the Federal Government, not the energy industry.

Thank you for sharing your truth.

Chris Hylton, Calgary

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