Case Study: Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties Tour

by Tessa Nasca 

Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties Tour is an example of a non-Indigenous celebrity artist engaging in an initiative that reaches a broad audience of mainstream arts and media consumers with a message rooted in treaty rights.  As a non-Indigenous person working in the field of transforming settler consciousness, I am interested in the ways in which non-Indigenous artists are working in collaboration with Indigenous communities to create broad reaching initiatives.

In this case study, I will first look at the background context of Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties tour. Then, I will document the ways in which Neil Young collaborated with Indigenous communities, and how the initiative was carried out on the ground. Finally, I will look at the outcomes of the project, including examining the reactions of both settlers and Indigenous people to these initiatives.

Background Context

In January of 2014, world-renowned non-Indigenous Canadian musician Neil Young launched a mini-tour in opposition to oil sands development on Indigenous lands. The tour, called the Honour the Treaties Tour, was orchestrated in partnership with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations (ACFN) Legal Defense Fund, and all proceeds of the tour went to the ACFN’s legal struggles against oilsands development in their traditional territories.  The Honour the Treaties Tour made four stops across Canada in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, and Calgary, and garnered much media attention throughout the duration of the tour.

 The Honour the Treaties Tour was a direct result of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s opposition to oilsands development in their homelands. ACFN is a Nation of approximately 1,200 members situated in Treaty 8 territory. The Nation “has eight reserves around the southern shores of Lake Athabasca, with a combined area of 34,767 hectares, but considers its traditional territory to encompass all of Treaty 8, which was signed in 1899 at Fort Chipewyan (Walker, 2014).

The traditional lands of Treaty 8 have been a hotbed for tar sands development in recent years. According to the ACFN Legal Defense Fund,

The ACFN is situated on the frontlines of tar sands industrial development – perhaps the largest-scale industrial development in human history. As a result ACFN members are witnessing the rapid and wide-scale industrialization of their traditional lands – lands that have sustained ACFN communities, their culture and distinctive way of life for countless generations. New studies have revealed there is currently no proven way to properly clean up and reclaim existing projects in the region (ACFN Legal Defense Fund, 2014).

The oilsands development in Treaty 8 territory is creating detrimental impacts on the health of the environment and the people. A few of the adverse impacts of this industrial development, selected from a list published by the ACFN Legal Defense fund, include:

  • “Over 30 million birds will be lost over the next 20 years due to tar sands development, and under current oil sands expansion plans, woodland caribou populations are expected to disappear.
  • 95% of the water used in tar sands surface mining is so polluted it has to be stored in toxic sludge pits. That’s 206,000 litres of toxic waste discharged every day
  • 11 million litres of toxic wastewater seep out of the tailing pits into the boreal forest and Athabasca river every day. That’s 4 billion litres a year.
  • Air pollutant guidelines in Alberta are less stringent than international standards. Despite that, air quality objectives were exceeded 1,556 times in 2009, up from 47 times in 2004.
  • 80% of the traditional territories of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation are rendered inaccessible for periods of the year due to oil sands development.
  • A higher than normal incidence of rare and deadly cancers has been documented in First Nations communities downstream of the oil sands by doctors, the Alberta Health Department and First Nations since 2007” (ACFN Legal Defense Fund, 2014).

Despite the fact that the ACFN receives no federal funding (due to their refusal to sign a funding agreement that violated their treaty rights) (Walker, 2014), the ACFN has pushed back against oil sands development. In fact, “over the last five years, ACFN has spent over $2 million in legal fees in relation to its challenges of oilsands development” (Walker, 2014). The ACFN legal defense fund states,

In response [to the oilsands development] the ACFN are actively engaged in a multi-prong legal strategy to challenge public policy, individual tar sands projects and inadequate environmental protection in Alberta’s Athabasca tar sands region in order to preserve and protect what is left of their homelands. The ACFN legal challenges focus on defending culture, the lands required to exercise Treaty and Aboriginal Rights, and the resources associated with those rights (ACFN Legal Defense Fund, 2014).

Just prior to the formation of the partnership between Neil Young and the ACFN Legal Defense fund, Shell Oil Canada Ltd. gained federal approval for its Jackpine Mine extension, a 300,000 bpd mine extension on Treaty 8 land. Thus, the ACFN’s most recent legal battle is filing “a judicial review of the federal decision to approve the project” (ACFN Legal Defense Fund, 2014). The ACFN is also still engaged in multiple other legal battles to defend their traditional territories against oilsands development.

The Partnership: How the initiative was undertaken

       Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties tour came about as a result of the ecological and cultural damage inflicted upon the ACFN by oilsands development. According to the ACFN Legal Defense Fund, “Neil Young… visited our territory and saw the impacts of the tar sands first hand. That is why he has partnered with us to raise money for our legal challenge of tar sands expansion and environmental destruction” (ACFN Legal Defense Fund, 2014). Young is publicly quoted as saying “We [Canada] made a deal with these [Indigenous] people. We are breaking our promise. We are killing these people. The blood of these people will be on modern Canada’s hands” and “Canada is trading integrity for money … That’s what’s happening under the current leadership in Canada” (Young, 2014).

Upon visiting the oilsands development sites in Treaty 8 territory, Young worked with the ACFN to establish the benefit tour. The Honour the Treaties tour is affiliated with an ongoing campaign by the ACFN Legal Defense Fund, called “Draw a Line in the Sand”. It was agreed upon between Neil Young and the ACFN Legal defense fund that 100% of proceeds from the tour would go directly to the legal struggles faced by ACFN (ACFN Legal Defense Fund).

Young and the ACFN Legal Defense Fund also partnered with other public figures, anti-tar sand activists, and environmental groups. Diana Krall was the opening act for Neil Young’s concerts, thus bringing another celebrity artist to the forefront of the issue. According to a press conference at Massey Hall prior to the tour launch, Young expressed that it is “a sorry state of affairs” that the ACFN must use celebrity voices to garner attention for their struggles (Toledano, 2014), but nevertheless his celebrity status was valuable in attracting mainstream media attention.  In addition to celebrity musicians, the tour and the press conference were offered in partnership with leading voices of the environmental movement, including David Suzuki of the Suzuki Foundation and Vanessa Grey, a young activist from Aamjiwnaang First Nation (Tolendano, 2014). The Chief of ACFN, Chief Alan Adam, and the Spokesperson for the ACFN Legal Defense Fund, Eriel Deranger, were also instrumental in the partnership and were speakers at the Massey Hall press conference (Tolendano, 2014).

The core outcome of this partnership was a significant financial contribution towards the legal battles being undertaken to protect ACFN homelands. The benefit concerts “far surpassed” their fundraising goal, ensuring that the ACFN “will be positioned to match the legal power of [their] opposition dollar for dollar” (Young, qtd. in Krugel, 2014). Furthermore, at the tour wrap-up, Young stated, “We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in raising money for the legal defense of the First Nations. Global environmental forces are joining us now with financial resources and it’s now because of the Canadian people’s awesome response to our call for justice” (Young, qtd. in Krugel, 2014).

However, perhaps even more important than the fundraising effort was the media attention and debate generated by the Honour the Treaties tour. According to a Canadian Press article, “Beyond the financial goal, Young said the concerts have succeeded in getting Canadians talking: ‘So it’s a win for us, because we’re all talking about it. No matter how you feel, there’s a discussion going on at the breakfast table. That’s big. That’s real. That’s Canada.’” (Krugel, 2014).

The “discussion going on at the breakfast table”: Canadians’ responses to the Honour the Treaties Tour

From the onset of this project, both Neil Young and the ACFN Legal Defense Fund knew that the concert series had the potential to spark controversy. Stated ACFN Legal Defense Fund Spokesperson Eriel Deranger, “There’s going to be controversy with this when it comes to people in Alberta, and that’s because our entire economy in Alberta is driven by the oilsands, and you can’t get away from that. Everyone is tied to industry” (Deranger, qtd. in Sherrit, 2014). Thus, Neil Young and the ACFN made a strategic decision to focus the concerts’ efforts on Treaty 8 as a legal entity that gives certain rights to the ACFN, rather than simply creating an anti-oilsands tour. Stated Young,

Our tour across Canada is to bring awareness that the First Nations treaties must be honoured if tar sands expansion is to take place… Honour the Treaties is not an anti-tar sands crusade… Its purpose is to bring light to the fact that the treaties with First Nations peoples’ are not being honoured by Canada” (Young, qtd. in Cryderman, 2014).

In my opinion, the tour’s focus on treaty rights as its core messaging is what qualifies it as an initiative that creates space to transform settler consciousness; by placing treaty rights at the forefront, non-Indigenous people in Canada are forced to consider their responsibilities to uphold treaties. This meant that environmental activists who are opposed to the oilsands for a myriad of environmental reasons were introduced to an angle of the anti-oilsands struggle that creates potential to deepen their analysis of the situation and serve as a foundation for coalition building between environmental groups and Indigenous peoples. This also meant that Neil Young fans that were attracted to the tour because of Young’s prominent status as a celebrity artist were potentially introduced to the relationship between treaty rights and the oilsands for the first time. Furthermore, Canadians that are pro-oilsands for a myriad of economic reasons were provided with the opportunity to consider the struggle through the lens of treaty rights and responsibilities. Ideally, this will prompt people that are pro-oilsands to consider their legal responsibilities and either halt development or seek ways to pursue development that does not violate treaty. Realistically, it may not achieve this goal, but at least Canadians were forced to view this pressing national issue from a treaty-focused lens.

Mainstream media outlets and social media platforms alike were abuzz with reactions to the tour, both in support of Young’s pro-treaty rights sentiment and opposed to the tour. A Huffington Post Alberta article entitled What we learned from Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties Tour and anti-oilsands fight highlights reactions found in mainstream media and on social media platforms. Whilst outlining each opinion is not within the scope of this case study, the Huffington Post article states the tour sparked some soul searching, and a lot of praise and rage. Those who depend on the oilsands for their living… are closely tied to the fortunes of the bitumen being extracted from the northern Alberta sand, opposed the singer’s message at every turn.  Meanwhile, those who believe pollution and scarred landscapes are the legacy of the industry that’s been allowed to run amok with Alberta’s social, political and environmental well-being, adamantly defended the aging Canadian rock icon.

The issue of oilsands development is one of the most pressing and divisive environmental, social, and economic issues in present-day Canadian consciousness. Because of the complexity of the issue and the deeply held beliefs by people on all sides of the debate, Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties tour was not able to resolve the divisive issue  create was a dialogic exchange between First Nations leaders, environmentalists, Indigenous people, oilsand supporters, settler Canadians, people invested in the oil industry, and other stakeholders in the conversation. And, refreshingly, this conversation was rooted in a critical, but often-overlooked foundational element of the issue: the fact that Canada is treaty land, and that treaties across this land are being disrespected in favour of industrial development.


Works Cited

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Legal Defence Fund. “Honour the ACFN.” Honour the ACFN. N.p., Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

Cryderman, Kelly. “Not on an ‘anti-tar-sands Crusade’, Neil Young Says.” The Globe and Mail. The Globe and Mail, 19 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

Krugel, Lauren. “Neil Young Concludes Anti-oilsands Concert Series.” CTVNews. The Canadian Press, 19 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

MacNeil, Jason. “Neil Young Putting His Music Where His Mouth Is In Oilsands Fight.” The Huffington Post. HuffPost Canada, 9 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

“Some Quotes from the Debate over Neil Young’s Anti Oilsands Concerts.” Canadian Business. The Canadian Press, 19 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

Sterritt, Angela. “Neil Young Set to Kick off Honour the Treaties Tour – Aboriginal – CBC.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 11 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

Toledano, Michael. “Neil Young Says We’re Breaking Our Promise to the First Nations | VICE Canada.” VICE. VICE Magazine, 13 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

Walker, Connie. “Neil Young Tour: 5 Facts about the First Nation He’s Singing for – Aboriginal – CBC.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 16 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.

“What We Learned From Neil Young’s Honour The Treaties Tour And Anti-Oilsands  Fight.” The Huffington Post. The Huffington Post Alberta, 24 Jan. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.


This entry was posted in Arts, Case Studies, Environmentalism, Land Struggles, Music, Short term, Social Movements, Treaties and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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