With his tar sands tour, the artist, and others like him, can help us find our national voice again.
Neil Young on his 'Honour the Treaties' tour: 'My job is to bring light to the situation through my celebrity.' Photo by Jay Blakesberg, used with permission.
There was never really any doubt that Neil Young's return to Winnipeg some 50 years after he left -- "I added it up," he said on Thursday night -- was going to trigger a mix of nostalgia and affection from a packed house at the Centennial Concert Hall in a city that claims Young as its own.
He arrived after travelling cross-country from Toronto, where he had kicked off his deliciously and deliberately provocative "Honour the Treaties" tour, having crossed a big chunk of "beautiful, beautiful Canada," passing through its vast forests and celebrating its clean air. He was a long way from the tar sands, clearly, but through his complaints about the "degradation of land, air, water, climate and people across North America," he has been getting very near to an essential truth about today's Canada.
Our national voice has been drowned out for so long that we've almost lost the language to express what we want our country to be. The colonization that began at contact and found its zenith in residential schools hasn't really stopped, and it turns out the indigenous peoples of this land, who have arguably suffered the most, are far from alone. This is hurting everyone.
The colonial-industrial complex is alive and well and, just like they did in residential schools, our governments have tried to beat us or ban us from speaking, in whatever actual tongue, of a Canada that is compassionate, considerate and has a confidence rooted in a shared hope for a better world, not just on a budget balanced on the impoverishment of our environment and our cultures for the benefit of a few.
At the concert hall Thursday, David Suzuki, our environment's rhetorician-in-chief, told me Young had elevated the dialogue and understanding of the tar sands far beyond anything he, and the environmental movement, have managed to achieve through their advocacy.
Suzuki seemed more delighted than surprised, and we should be, too.
What governments fear
Environmentalism isn't dead, but it exists as much as to preserve ego-systems as ecosystems, to protect pieties as much as places, and in any event is simply no match for the extremism of Stephen Harper's brand of politics. In part, that's because environmentalists play mostly within the rules, and overwhelmingly, governments set the rules. Of course, in Harper's case they ignore the rules that don't serve their interests, and escape punishment except, in theory, at the polls.
Plainly put, our governments don't fear environmentalists, even icons like David Suzuki. But governments fear emotion, which they can't regulate, and who but our artists are capable of stirring our emotions, giving them expression, and releasing the trapped energy in our national psyche?
If the answers to our largest and most intractable social and environmental issues are cultural, not mechanical -- and I passionately believe this to be the case -- then it seems not just fair but vital that our artists pose the questions of our time in the ways they know best, and use their talents to liberate us from the tyranny of our abusers.
This is not a call to a collective singing of "Kumbayah," although a sing-a-long with Neil Young playing "Ohio," quickly followed by "Southern Man," seemed entirely appropriate under the circumstances on Thursday. Rather, it is to recognize the long history of art as activism that has illuminated some of our world's darkest eras, and to take comfort from the fact that Harper's office is so tone deaf that it sought earlier in the week to write Young off as simply a "rock star" who should stick to singing songs and minding his own carbon footprint.
For those of us who believe there is a phase change afoot in Canada right now, a transition from Ottawa's impoverished ethos of economic determinism to something less rooted in certainty, to a future more informed by openness to possibility; it is in fact a good thing that the PMO wants to shrug off Young and concert opener Diana Krall as mere minstrels. The more the prime minister and his ilk discount our singers, our writers, our poets, our painters, dancers, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers, composers and comedians as mere entertainers, the greater our capacity for surprise.
An act of witnessing
It's true that watching and listening to Young on Thursday doesn't exactly equate with lying down in front of a bulldozer, or a tank, or monkey wrenching the machinery in the first place. However, it was absolutely an act of witnessing, and of remembering.
What was fascinating about Young's performance was the degree to which the nostalgia that the audience felt for Young was returned in greater measure by Young himself. He spoke a great deal more than he usually does, sitting in an orange on-stage glow surrounded by his old guitars as if at a campfire, or muttering half to himself as he creaked back and forth between his guitars and pianos and an elevated pump organ. He reminisced about the seventies when, alone or in the company of Crosby, Stills and Nash, or with other troubadours of the protest era, there was a sort of symbiosis between artist and audience.
"Things kept happening to us, but we reacted together. There was no difference between the crowd and the people on the stage. We were all just people, living, feeling the fragility of our times."
As wistful as that might sound, there was nothing the slightest bit sentimental about Young's articulation of the issues that have driven him to mount his tour in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation's legal defence fund.
Young has been to the tar sands -- attracting a great deal of controversy for equating the environmental damage there with the bombing of Hiroshima in Japan -- but what worried him even more on seeing the place was the realization of the abuse being wrought on local First Nations.
"I went up there to find out about CO2. What I found was a bunch of people who were being persecuted and lied to and misled," he told the CBC's Jian Ghomeshi ahead of his opening concert in Toronto. Asked about comments he'd previously made that "musicians should stay out of politics," Young said his role is to "raise enough attention so you people would come hear what's going on.... My job is to bring light to the situation through my celebrity."
On stage, Young made little reference to the purpose of his tour other than to let people know that the proceeds would go to the legal fight against the tar sands. There was a wonderful moment, however, when he slipped in a reference to Harper in the song "Pocahontas":
Maybe Stephen Harper / Will be there by the fire /
Talking about Ottawa / And the people there for hire/
Stephen Harper, broken treaties and me/
Stephen Harper, Pocahontas and me.
But for the most part, he let his celebrity do the talking, just like the artists who rallied in the '80s to help save the Stein Valley, the Carmanah Valley and Gwaii Haanas in British Columbia, or the writers and photographers who elevated the Great Bear Rainforest and the Sacred Headwaters in the imagination of a public who for the most part will never go there, but somehow understand that in the fate of those places lies the fate of us all.
As important as those accomplishments were, given the pace of industrialization today and the sheer scope of development projects and especially energy projects (with the tar sands as evidence) -- to so radically and irrevocably alter our landscapes and our climate, our activism can no longer be just about special places.
Or if it is, then it's about one special place. Canada.
We have a country that has been built on two centuries of broken treaties -- not just with First Nations, but latterly with other nations and here at home with all Canadian people.
We cannot stand idly by, and we have a moral obligation to look beyond our politicians for answers, because they don't have them. We need to find answers in the knowledge and courage and hope and, yes, emotions of Canadians, and we should demand of our artists that they do everything within their remarkable powers to provide us with the inspiration that our polity is so utterly incapable of delivering.
Building successful societies is an art, yet for too long we've left the task to engineers.
While Neil Young isn't the voice of Canadians, at least not all of them, he absolutely can help us find our national voice again. Maybe, in order for us to reclaim the country we are in danger of losing, for us to see our future not as the sum of our failures but of our possibilities, we need a new protest song.
And maybe Neil Young will write it. Certainly, I won't. Sure, I string a few words together from time to time, but I'm no artist, and I'm not about to start writing songs. Be thankful for that small mercy.
But I will take a crack at writing a line that someone else might slip into a song someplace, a line that I offer up as one small refrain in the anthem that our fragile age demands. And I'll keep it simple.
"We want our country back."