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Neil Young Joins a B.C Air War

With Randy Bachman and Barenaked Ladies, the rocker took aim at Crofton's smelly mill - and caught return fire.

By Tom Hawthorn 24 Sep 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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A dishevelled figure shambled across the stage to take a seat. He wore a T-shirt beneath a white jacket whose sleeves were rolled to the elbow. Kneecaps poked through his blue jeans. A loose white hat hung low over his eyes. Neil Young was in the house.

The house was home to the Cowichan Valley Capitals junior hockey team. Young was a busker playing for free on this night. He was the headline attraction on a bill that included Tal Bachman, his father Randy Bachman and the Barenaked Ladies.

Some 1,100 padded chairs had been set up on the Duncan arena's concrete floor, where those in front row paid $250 and those in the back $100 for a concert whose lineup was a lalapalooza for so small a city. About 2,300 fans crammed into an arena in a city of fewer than 5,000.

Proceeds will fund study

The concert was a fund-raiser for the Crofton Airshed Citizens Group, which will use proceeds to finance an independent scientific study of emissions from the pulp mill in nearby Crofton. (NorskeCanada, which owns the mill, released its own report Thursday.) Some folks suspect the mill's acrid fumes bring health risks as well as tears to the eyes of those standing downwind. Others suspect a bunch of hemp-wearing, latter-day hippies are keen on taking away their jobs.

The concert has stirred enough intrigue and suspicion to script a John Sayles movie. The characters include a guitar god, an organic farmer, a hard-pressed local union president, and the leader of a group calling itself First Dollar. The narrative revolves around an aging pulp mill, with cameo appearances by a controversial development on an idyllic island and an offstage provincial government. An incendiary e-mail offers a novel plot twist.

The concert on Friday night was the opening scene in a drama to be in the headlines for many months to come.

'Friends feel threatened'

Wearing a neck bracket to hold his harmonica, Young strummed while surrounded by a circle of acoustic guitars and a banjo. A spotlight caught a silvery glimpse of muttonchop sideburns. The guru dispensed rock wisdom to acolytes, some of whom bellowed his first name with drunken gusto.

"They killed us in our tepee, and they cut our women down," he sang in his distinctive reedy timbre, opening a solo set in the City of Totems with "Pocahontas." "They might have left some babies, cryin' on the ground." He followed with "Harvest Moon" before shuffling to the piano for "Journey Through the Past" and "On the Way Home."

After the applause died down, Young addressed the audience. "Some of my friends feel a little threatened by what's going on here," he said to a roar.

"Ignorance," he added, "is not a good basis for progress."

Then he spoke as though reading lyrics. "I want to thank you (pause) for coming here (pause) and giving us your money (pause) so we can (pause) do a little research (pause) to see what's going on."

First Dollar vs. Randy Bachman

Outside the Cowichan Centre, around the corner from the world's largest hockey stick, a leftover of Expo 86 now attached to an exterior wall, a few dozen attended a family picnic. The gathering was organized by First Dollar, a group that proclaims itself a grassroots coalition of those who work in resource industries. "People have to speak out before Bachman and his rich friends take away our jobs and our rural way of life," said Leanne Brunt, one of the group's founders, who said the picnic was designed to tell Bachman "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet."

The former frontman for the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive became a pinata for some resource workers after an e-mail he had sent to the Water, Land and Air Protection ministry was leaked. In the missive, he promised to "never rest" until the mill was closed.

"It is inevitable that the mill will eventually be shut down, whether for economic or environmental reasons (or both) and we believe that we must take action before it poisons our air and water resources any further," Bachman and his wife, Denise McCann Bachman, wrote in a January e-mail that was leaked. The rocker later had his publicist disavow the sentiment, claiming his was a knee-jerk reaction.

While Neil Young, his old friend from Winnipeg days, merely looks like just another Vancouver Island retiree in a Tilley hat, Bachman is like thousands of others from the prairie diaspora who have settled permanently in British Columbia. He now lives on a couple of acres on Salt Spring Island.

Smell of money

Bachman's anger at the mill was fueled by a public meeting held after NorskeCanada announced its interest in saving money by burning coal, car tires and railway ties in boiler No. 4 at Crofton. The boiler has been burning salty hog, which includes wood waste and sludge from a treatment pond.

The Crofton mill has 1,000 employees working two pulp and three paper machines. Built in 1957, at a time when the Social Credit government of W.A.C. Bennett had declared British Columbia open for business, the mill revived a town that had been moribund for a half-century. Crofton was founded in 1902 as the site of a copper smelter, the town taking its name from mine owner Henry Croft. The smelter closed after just six years.

The mill's owners pay about $7.9 million a year in school and property taxes, making it the largest single source in the area, although earlier this year the company sought to reduce its payments by about half.

New town a whiff away

Crofton and the mill are just a short ferry ride across Stuart Channel from Vesuvius on Salt Spring Island. An exclusive, 851-acre residential development is to be built to the north of the sleepy island hamlet, making the 405 new homes and 1,200 residents at Channel Ridge by far the largest development on the Gulf Islands. The selling of the island as a bucolic paradise is not made easier by the presence of a pulp mill to the southwest.

After all, the mill occupies a deep-sea port to one mindset, prime waterfront acreage to another.

It is easy to reduce the debate to the simplicity of Good vs. Evil. One side says: Johnny-come-lately millionaire rock stars and their well-heeled friends are trying to shut down a mill with no regard for lost jobs. The other replies: A greedy company and a wilfully-blind government permit our children and our land to be poisoned in the name of profit.

Versions of these points of view can be heard from some of the other personae dramatis.

Leanne Brunt, one of the founders of First Dollar, has been described in a widely-published newspaper column as a single mother from Campbell River who is standing up to wealthy rock stars, their agents and their hallelujah chorus in the media. Brunt is vice-president of the fish farming industry group Society for the Positive Awareness of Aquaculture, which named her individual of the year in February. First Dollar favours the development of offshore oil and gas.

Looking for common ground

Michael Ableman is an organic farmer who is an articulate spokesman for the Crofton Airshed Citizens Group. He owns the Madrona Valley Farm bed and breakfast in Vesuvius, where the nightly minimum is $150. Ableman was featured in an award-winning PBS documentary "Beyond Organic" (2001). Sierra magazine calls him a "gracious rebel." He gave a longish speech to a restless audience between sets at the concert, giving one concert-goer a new appreciation for Pete Townshend's boot to Abbie Hoffman's butt at Woodstock.

Some are making an effort to find common ground between the greens and the blue-collars. Duncan environmentalist Matt Price organized a low-key conference the day before the all-star concert. The message from the two unions representing workers at the mill: We know the company better than anyone and have no interest in poisoning ourselves or our children. Plus, don't threaten our jobs. They, too, see a villain in the piece.

"The government checked out of this equation 20 months ago and pretends it has nothing to do with it," said Phil Davies, president of Local 2  of the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada (PPWC). He refers to Water, Land and Air Protection, the ministry to whom Bachman sent his e-mail, as Log It, Burn It and Pave It.

Mill closure a fresh wound

Davies, a millwright at the mill and one of 674 workers represented by the PPWC, admits any alliance with environmentalists will likely be an uneasy one, with each side suspicious of the others' motive.

As if to highlight the mistrust, Davies was interrupted in the middle of an interview by a burly man who barked, "Christ, man, we've got an air pollution problem," before embarking on a rant about creosote.

It was like having a drunk at the next table overhear a single word before launching into a diatribe. The environmentalist took a breath after saying, "The company, goddamn, they're ruthless." The man then introduced himself. He was Paul George, founder of the Western Canada Wilderness Committee and the husband of Adriane Carr, the B.C. Green Party leader who was attending the conference.

If mill workers seem touchy about a threat to their job, perhaps it is because they have seen a Cowichan Valley mill close. In 2001, the mill at Youbou on Cowichan Lake was closed by TimberWest, ending 73 years of milling at the site. More than 200 jobs were lost. Those workers << savebcjobs.com >> can now watch a daily parade of trucks shippingTimberWest's raw logs for export out of the valley.

One of the lessons learned: environmentalists don't close pulp mills; owners of pulp mills close pulp mills.

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria reporter and a regular contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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