Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Neil Young a typical Winnipegger

Anti-oilsands crusader is obstinate, enigmatic

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Of all the weird and wonderful people who once called Winnipeg home, Neil Young easily wins the prize for best exemplifying this city's obstinate and enigmatic nature.

The most famous musician Winnipeg has ever spawned lived in this town for only a handful of years in the early 1960s. He's been gone nearly five decades, yet we continue to claim him as our own, mainly because of his immense body of work and massive influence on the development of the singer-songwriter genre as well as straight-ahead rock 'n' roll.

As Young illustrated this week, he remains stubborn and strange enough to remain a Winnipegger for the rest of his life, even if he never returns to Portage and Main.

He started off the week on a mission to draw attention to Alberta's oilsands, a massive resource development he's compared to Hiroshima, a war zone and the surface of the moon.

By measure of mere publicity alone, Young has been successful. His Honour the Treaties tour, an effort to raise money for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, a northeastern Alberta Dene community in a legal battle to stave off more development upstream, has sparked some debate about the social and environmental effects of the oilsands project.

Young has attracted the attention of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office, provincial politicians and oil company officials, a remarkable achievement for a musician of any stripe.

After all, as Young conceded on Thursday at news conference at the Centennial Concert Hall, he's just a guitar player.

"As far as me not knowing what I'm talking about, everybody knows that. That couldn't be more obvious. I'm a musician," said Young, apparently attempting to downplay criticism spawned by statements he made earlier in the week in Toronto.

When he compared Fort McMurray, Alta., to Hiroshima, he was condemned for being insensitive. When he claimed Canada ships most of its oil to China, he was derided for speaking about oil production without being armed with all the facts.

So in front of a Winnipeg media audience, he was careful to portray himself as merely a passionate guy who was so appalled by what he saw during a visit to Fort McMurray, he was inspired to do whatever he can to slow the pace of further oilsands development.

"My whole job here is to raise enough attention so you people would come hear what's going on," he said, flanked by environmental scientists and First Nations activists. "My job is to bring light to the situation through my celebrity. Aside from that, I'm not nearly as well-qualified to speak as these other folks are."

Stage left of Young stood David Suzuki, the CBC broadcaster and environmental activist, who tried to merely MC the press conference, but couldn't resist shouting emphatic warnings about climate change and the evils of unfettered development.

At stage right sat David Schindler, the renowned University of Alberta limnologist, who combined a brief lecture about the environmental impact of the oilsands with complaints about the Harper government's efforts to hamper Canadian freshwater science, including the bizarre decision to mothball the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario.

Athabasca Chief Allan Adam, resident Eriel Deranger and Mohawk activist Doreen Somers took turns issuing statements about treaty rights. Taking in the entire set of six round-robin speeches was akin to happening upon a heated kitchen-table discussion at the end of a family dinner, where everyone is speaking passionately about something that only peripherally involves everyone else's conversation.

When it came time for Young to speak, the opinions started flowing like a gusher of sweet light crude in search of a pipeline to a foreign market. Neil Young may not be an expert on anything, but he certainly knows what he believes.

The Keystone XL pipeline should not be approved, he said, although it's "almost all built, just waiting on President Obama to make up his mind."

The proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline is a bad idea, as the fuel would all go to China, "which is probably the dirtiest place on the planet."

Oilsands development in general should be put on hold because "reclamation is a myth" and the land cannot handle further degradation.

"We will thank the First Nations for stopping this, if they're able to stop it, because 20 years from now or 30 years from now we'll be able to look at all of the area we've saved and it'll still be there."

The rest of the planet, however, may not be in such good shape, Young said. And who's going to disagree with him?

From a big-picture standpoint, many if not most Canadians would agree there are troubling aspects of resource extraction on a scale as massive as in the oilsands of Alberta. Few would fault Young for speaking passionately about a subject that clearly moves him.

But it's odd to see what has and hasn't motivated Young over the decades, which have seen him waver from the political engagement in the '70s to Cold Warrior pro-Reaganism in the '80s to apparent detachment in the '90s.

Young is nothing if not mercurial when it comes to his political convictions. That's not a criticism, but a simple observation. This unpredictability is a big reason we can remain infatuated with the guy.

You can love and admire Young without agreeing with the guy. You can even claim him as one of your own, though his visits are infrequent and his view of Winnipeg is less rose-coloured than it is sepia-toned.

What do you think of artists who speak out on issues other than artistic ones? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 17, 2014 A4


Updated on Friday, January 17, 2014 at 6:44 AM CST: Adds photo, adds video, adds question for discussion

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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