Singer-songwriter, Neil Young, touched a nerve with his "Honour the Treaties" tour ("Honour the Treaties Tour A Success, Neil Young Says," Brandon Sun, Jan. 20). A tour undertaken to raise money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations to cover legal costs in its "attempt to protect its traditional land north of Fort McMurray" ("Artists, Scientists Pen Letter Of Support For Singer Neil Young," Brandon Sun, Jan. 21). The tour and Mr. Young’s comments during the tour created a temporary firestorm of media coverage and, probably, many hours of lively debates at the kitchen table and in coffee shops.
Much of the debate questioned the credibility of Neil Young, and by extension, critics of oilsands development, be they celebrities, environmentalists or First Nations peoples. In the interests of truth, questioning credibility is fair and necessary. What was lacking, however, is any discussion regarding the credibility of proponents of the oilsands development. To be sure, all this questioning leads to places one does not want to go. How do you reconcile two opposing descriptions of the same scene? Both Young (and others, including scientists) and Minister Joe Oliver (and others, including scientists) have flown over the oilsands development sites. Young equates the sites with Hiroshima. Minister Oliver describes them as pristine. Whom do you believe?
Unless you take the time and energy and have the knowledge to understand all aspects of resource development and environmental protection, the debate becomes one of whom should you, do you want to believe, which may have nothing to do with reality but more to do with one’s own character and values. Which in turn requires some critical analysis.
Should one believe a politician, an industrialist because they are a politician, an industrialist. Seems equally legitimate to believe or not believe a celebrity because they are a celebrity.
Which leads to the observation that science was glaringly absent in the public debate, except for the presence of David Suzuki on Young’s tour. Sort of an indirect comment was made regarding science and its role in "developing solutions to challenging issues through innovation" (Dave Collyer, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, "More Oilsands Facts, Less Rock-Star Rhetoric," Globe and Mail, Jan. 16). The implication being that the oilsands developers will find the technologies to establish a "strong, continuous focus on reducing the industry’s environmental impact."
On the other hand, those who propose slowing or stopping oilsands development are "anti-fossil fuel activists, not scientists ..." Possibly one can assume from this that "pro-fossil fuel activists" are also not scientists. In which case we can ignore scientists on both sides of oilsands development as being nothing but activists. What then do we make of scientific knowledge? Irrelevant?
Without science there would be no oilsands development. There would be no technology to extract the crude, to process the crude, to use the products produced from the crude, the goods and services made available through the use of crude oil products. No oilsands development no environmental impact.
Conversely, without science there would be no concern regarding environmental impacts of oilsands development. We would all be blissful in our ignorance, while we consume, consume, consume. Unfortunately, science does not work that way. In its purist sense, science is impartial, even though scientists are not. In its purist sense, science gives us the technology to extract crude from the oilsands and warns us of the dangers to the environment related to the extraction of that crude. In its purist sense, science will develop the answers whereby development and environment protection will be partners. There is a term for this partnership — sustainable development.
Proponents of oilsands development are fairly clear in identifying the risk, from their perspective, of stopping or slowing development. Economic doomsday. However, they do not reference the risk of environmental degradation as a result of unfettered oil-sands development. Doomsday. (Hyperbole should not be monopolized by oilsands development proponents.)
But what is the reality or significance of those risks? That discussion has not occurred in any real sense. The absence of such a discussion appears to be the downfall of the oil industry. Recent polls are indicating that Canadians are becoming less supportive of oilsands development. An awareness reflected by the oil industry’s attack of Neil Young.
The First Nations, according to their traditions, determined the viability of innovation with full regard to its impact on the seventh generation. This is real risk assessment. It is likely that this attitude toward innovation (including development) is the basis for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s concern about the oilsands development in their backyard. The jobs, and what comes with those jobs, are here and now. What will be there for the seventh generation? Young’s actions and comments may have, in a very limited way, expressed these concerns. However, there is no evidence that these concerns have entered into the public debate.
There is no evidence that the public, and certainly not the oilsands proponents, understand the significance of assessing oilsands development in terms of its impact on the future generations. Nor is there any indication that the public or the oilsands development proponents appreciate that for some First Nations peoples there seems to be no conceptual separation between people and land. That is, their being is inseparable from the land.
A concept that is virtually impossible for non-First Nations peoples to understand. As well, First Nations peoples are part of the greater community with an understanding, even if reluctant, that they must accommodate the new realities. Survival means being part of the economic and social fabric of the bigger community, which includes participation in resource development projects.
The media stories which came out in response to Young’s tour suggest that the oilsands proponents and apologists have no inclination to be patient with First Nations as they try to reconcile themselves with their new realities. Nor have they displayed any appreciation for the thought that First Nations traditions may be right. Land and people are indivisible.
Neil Young offered an opportunity to Canadians to enter into a full debate and examination of the issues surrounding oilsands development and by extension resource development. It seems the debate has been very short-term and one-sided, led by proponents and apologists for oilsands development.
To continue with Neil Young’s analogy, we are so focused on creating the bomb, giving no thought to what it will do. We are focused on resource development giving no place in our minds for the consequences. Our seventh generation and their seventh generation will know what we have done and what we could have done.
» Chester and Rosemarie Letkeman are both retired from federal public service and are long-time Brandon residents. They are both interested in public policy, but have no political affiliation. Their column runs monthly.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition January 31, 2014