By Tim Harper
The intersection between politics and celebrity on this continent has been blurred so long, the moment the two officially merged is lost in time.
Particularly to the south of us, movie stars of renown and those best forgotten shill for presidential candidates, interview invisible presidents in empty chairs, play benefit concerts and get themselves arrested at pipeline protests.
Action figures campaign for fringe Republicans, actors are elected governor and, once upon a time, one became president.
Which brings us to Neil Young, who sat Sunday in a very familiar place, on the Massey Hall stage, and delivered a savage attack on Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
The 68-year-old musician took on the government for its single-minded thirst for petrodollars, its lack of integrity, its hypocrisy, its ignorance of science and its shameful treatment of this country’s First Nations.
Young hasn’t lived in this country for almost five decades and he has never asked for the confidence of voters here. He is an iconic musician of superlative talent.
But should we care what Neil Young says about our government’s resource policies?
Is he just another celebrity carping on a single issue, further diminishing the currency of celebrity in the political debate in North America?
Actually, Neil Young will — and should — be listened to.
He is likely Canada’s most famous musical export and though he has left the country, he has revisited it many times in his music, whether he is singing about Yorkville or his Prairie roots.
As a Canadian, he crystallized the grief and horror over the Kent State shootings with a counterculture anthem he performed at Massey Hall more than 42 years ago and more recently recorded an anti-war anthem against George W. Bush including the none-too-subtly named Let’s Impeach the President.’
On Sunday, Young kicked off an Honour the Treaties tour in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, an Alberta community about 200 km downstream from the oilsands development in Alberta. He’s raising money for their legal challenges of the Jackpine Mine Expansion project, a proposed Pierre River Mine and a provincial land use plan they say runs rampant over their treaty rights and traditional land uses.
The Jackpine extension is particularly controversial.
Its expansion was approved by the federal government last month, even though federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq agreed there would be “significant adverse environmental effects,” justified under the circumstances.
“Canada is trading integrity for money. That’s what’s happening under the current leadership of Canada, which is a very poor imitation of the George Bush administration,’’ Young told reporters.
He said the thirst for resource extraction is killing aboriginals and “the blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands.’’
In a theatrical touch, the stage was designed with three empty seats for Aglukkaq, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt.
“I see a government completely out of control. Money is No. 1. Integrity isn’t even on the map,’’ Young said.
Last year, Young drew heat in Alberta after his visit to the oilsands, when he likened Fort McMurray to Hiroshima, and he said Sunday he stands by his “pretty mellow” remarks, but adding he was struck by all the hard-working people there — “I respect hardworking people.”
The ACFN is not calling for the oilsands to be shut down, but is calling for a timeout until the environmental and health concerns can be responsibly studied.
Young, in many quarters, will be branded as an interloper, an old rocker with no grasp of the issues, who should stick to his music and leave our issues to us. But that’s missing the point.
He doesn’t need to tour on behalf of an Alberta First Nations community. He could stick to his music and head back to his California estate.
But he has done his homework and pushed the issue into the news again, as he will continue to do as he speaks out later this week in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary.
“It’s embarrassing, as a Canadian, to listen to some of this stuff (from the government),” he said.
You don’t have to agree with him and you don’t have to buy into the power of celebrity. But he decided he would try to make a difference when he could have stayed home.