Robyn Benson, PSAC

Neil Young, Canadian

We can learn lessons from Neil Young’s recent “Honour the Treaties” tour in Canada to campaign against tar sands pollution and for the treaty rights of First Nations—perhaps less about that pollution itself than the consequences of speaking out on controversial subjects.

It can be a bit rough.

Young isn’t a climate scientist. He’s a rock star, who happens to believe the environment and First Nations treaty rights are issues worth raising. Given his pop-culture status, he’s got more of a platform than most. That irritates the powers that be.

So Big Oil and its defenders quickly brought out the heavy artillery, accusing him of hypocrisy. After all, didn’t he fly up here for his tour on a polluting jet? (He arrived in a vehicle powered by biodiesel, as it happens.) He’s a “foreign know-nothing,” screams a hastily put up pro-tar sands website called “Neil Young Lies.” (He’s a Canadian citizen.)

And an outfit called “Ethical Oil,” which lobbies hard for the oil industry, took a swipe at First Nations as well, with the Twitter hashtag #IndianIgnorant. Nice, eh?

More and more research is showing that tar sands development is poisoning the environment with all sorts of pollutants, including mercury. Tar sands pollution, in fact, is literally driving people from their homes.

But in the tar sands region doctors are turning patients away who complain of symptoms that could be linked to pollution. In great part this is because they’ve been terrorized into silence. They remember what happened to a colleague of theirs, Dr. John O’Connor, who was threatened with loss of his licence after raising the alarm in 2006 about cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan. He was exonerated after a long battle, one that other doctors aren’t keen on fighting themselves.

Prominent Canadians are rising to Neil Young’s defence. That’s encouraging. But all of our voices should be heard.

Speaking truth to power, as the record shows above, is not without its risks. What trade union activist is unaware of that? Every one of us has taken our lumps for speaking up in the workplace. But speaking out is a right, and like any other right it needs exercise or it withers away.

The personal risks, of course, are far less for a well-off celebrity, but Young has shown what folks face when they take a stand for themselves and others. He doesn’t need to do what he does: he could do without the storm of personal attacks that he’s been attracting. But defending our environment, and insisting that First Nations living in the path of pipelines get a fair shake, is the right thing to do—and so he does it.

Speaking our minds, in our workplaces or elsewhere, isn’t always easy, but it goes directly to what citizenship really means. And Neil Young is every inch a citizen.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on January 28, 2014 8:30 AM.

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