Neil Young and his Honor the Treaties tour is moving west, arriving in Calgary this Sunday evening. The tour has certainly opened a conversation here in the heart of oil country, and in my own case, raises questions about the sponsorship of the arts, and in some cases of individual artists, by companies in, as it is known out here, the oil patch.
This is a topic rarely discussed by artists, other than privately, over a few beers, as it speaks to an uneasy tension that we have learned to live with – the need for funding for expensive art forms such as theatre on one hand, and on the other, an uneasy and growing awareness that this money represents some very serious devastation of the environment, especially in the Fort McMurray area in the northern part of Alberta. Not to mention the ongoing and similarly uneasy tension between oil companies and first nations people in the area.
It’s a balance that is so delicate that it is rarely “officially” spoken of by artists; nor is it often dealt with as content for artistic expression. I can attest to this. I set a play of mine, Midlife (2002) in the corporate offices of a Calgary oil company, but it was hardly critical of the industry.
Except I have to admit that the play contains this speech, made by Jack who is an oil company executive to explain (lie) to his wife why he is coming in at 5:00AM:
There was a situation . . . A crisis. Yeah. There was a crisis. In production. That sounds reasonable. A crisis in production. International implications. A corrupt dictatorship. Violations of human rights all over the place. Atrocities. They hung a poet. Same old story . . .
An oblique reference to Ken Saro-Wiwa that probably got a laugh. Although obviously meant to be ironic, I’m not sure how I feel about that now.
I published around 250,000 words in the Calgary Herald in a column in which I could write about anything I chose, but I never chose to the write about the oil patch. My writing appears in many other publications, as well as this blog, which represents another 100,000 words or so. But I have never written about the situation. Until now.
I arrived in Calgary 20 years ago. I made a splashy entrance, having written a hit play for Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites ’94 Festival (titled Some Assembly Required) which at the time was sponsored by Shell Oil. Oil company sponsorship of the arts was all new to me. I had spent my formative years in Saskatchewan, where there was very little in the way of oil production and not a lot of talk about it. It was all about wheat and potash, back in the day.
I left Regina to attend York University (MFA, 1984) in Toronto and remained there essentially throughout the ’80’s. I suppose I was a typical self-absorbed young artist in those days, more concerned about making my mark in the world than anything else. One organization I worked with at the time, Frontier College, got involved with Imperial Oil for sponsorship of one of its programs, but that certainly didn’t lead to any awareness of where oil came from or how it was produced, Imperial or otherwise.
I don’t know if I was simply naïve, but I had very little frame of reference for the political or business climates of Alberta when I arrived on these shores a few decades ago. But make no mistake: when you live here, it’s all about oil and gas. It drives the economy and to a certain extent the entire culture of this city and the province as a whole.
Early on in my tenure as Playwright in Residence at ATP, in 1995, over in Nigeria the above-mentioned writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed and the reportage at the time and since certainly implicated Shell Oil in what has since been recognized around the world as an extreme travesty of justice. Obviously, we writers are a little sensitive when one of our fellow scribes gets strung up, and suddenly I was a little uncomfortable with my new gig.
One evening, I had the opportunity to ask an executive from Shell about the situation and he explained to me that the incident had nothing to do with his company, Shell Canada – that it was Royal Dutch Shell, or Shell International, or some such. And he agreed with me that it was a terrible situation, but there was no sense at all of culpability on behalf of the Canadian company.
Well, friends, so much for my inquiry. If I felt any moral outrage I suppressed it. Here in Calgary, I was in an extremely fortunate position, the envy of playwrights around the world, to be paid to write plays, and not only write them, but then to see them produced by a good theatre company in a beautiful theatre. After all, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
Shell gave way to PanCanadian Petroleum which doesn’t exist anymore which in turn gave way to Enbridge. All of these companies have supported the arts in Alberta. In the case of Enbridge, no one can deny their generosity or their community spirit. They are, as they like to think of themselves, good corporate citizens.
On one occasion, I happened to be in the office of a senior VP at Enbridge, interviewing him for another publication. It was a cold morning in Calgary. From his office high above the city in one of the glass towers downtown, we could see the smoke rising from the chimneys of a thousand offices and homes, and as we looked out at the city from his office, he said to me, “Everyone loves to hate us. But no one wants to wake up in a cold house on a day like this.”
Looking back at the situation here only a few years ago, you could say there was a golden time in Alberta. Oil production was driving the economy, making it probably the strongest in Canada, and beyond, and there was sufficient support of the arts and other community endeavours so that those of us not involved in the industry could see the benefits and overlook the problems.
But lately, it’s become harder and harder to overlook the types of concerns that Neil Young and company are addressing as their Honor the Treaties tour wends its way west into the heart of oil country. Even an impartial observer would have to agree that the mega projects up in the Fort McMurray area are hardly beneficial to the environment, to put it mildly. And as the environment of the northern boreal forest is very delicate, the risk of irreversible devastation seems very great: an accident waiting to happen, if it hasn’t already.
Factor into the equation the fact that these lands are the home and habitat of first nations people, who may or may not be benefiting from this industrial activity, depending on whom you talk to.
And then, if things weren’t complicated and explosive enough, we now find that our federal government seems intent on shutting down all scientific monitoring of the situation, leading many Canadians, especially those close to the scene, to believe that the fox is now monitoring the situation in the hen house, and will be sending us impartial reports from time to time.
At times, it’s hard to believe we are talking about Canada — the true, north strong and free — and not some third world dictatorship.
Enter Neil Young. He is certainly not making any friends for himself in the oil patch, but I hardly think that was his goal. Whether you admire him or revile him, he has opened up a dialogue and done what we like to think an artist does in our society – he’s held up a mirror for us to see ourselves from a different perspective. But this could only have been done, I think, by an artist who doesn’t live in Alberta (or even in Canada) and who is in no way dependant on our economy for his own survival.
Like many of my colleagues and friends, I am not comfortable with the development of the tar sands, the way it is happening and its effect on the environment. I am deeply troubled by the war on science currently being waged by our federal government, which will make it increasingly difficult to know just what is happening up there, exactly. And I am concerned about the fate of aboriginal people in the area.
Yet at the same time, I am not prepared to be a total hypocrite about the matter either. Most playwrights I know, for example, (myself included) would find it extremely difficult to say no to a production on account of support from the oil patch of the producing company. I haven’t heard of it happening yet.
For my own part, I’ve been working on a novel this last year which to a certain extent shields me from the question of corporate sponsorship which I suppose is a blessing and a curse. And yet, I received a grant from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts to complete that novel last summer. I’m not so delusional to think that that money didn’t come, one way or another, from the oil patch.
At a dinner party the other evening that was attended by a number of people, none of them directly involved in oil and gas production, I asked if any of them (if any of us) could honestly say there is no oil on our money, no smears of bitumen on the bills in our pockets. No one could.
So where does that leave us?
Well, as artists, you would have to say in admiration of Neil Young for shining a light on a dark and ugly issue. As citizens, it becomes a little more complicated. Everyone likes to have a roof over their head, everyone likes to eat, everyone likes to drive their car or truck to work. (An addiction I overcame 2 years ago, for what it’s worth.) How you can accomplish any of that in Alberta in 2014 in isolation from the oil and gas industry is a mystery to me.
Personally, I doubt that it can be done.
And so, it would seem that the uneasy tensions will persist. But at least now, thanks to Mr. Young and company, we’re talking about it.
Thanks for reading.
I wanted to share my favourite Neil Young song here (Powderfinger) but would ask you to watch this brief video on Ken Saro-Wiwa instead.
RIP, Ken. You deserved better.