Maybe before everyone from Rex Murphy to Alison Redford piled on Neil Young for his statement that the Alberta oil sands “look like Hiroshima,” they should have spoken to someone who actually knows what both places look like.
Michiko Sagata is originally from Nagasaki, the other city that was bombed at the end of World War II. She now lives in Vancouver and she wrote in to the Calgary Herald to express her support for Young’s comment, saying that
Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki were incinerated and thousands of people were killed, the aerial photograph of the oilsands which I saw for the first time is much more scary, ugly and disturbing than photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The comparison is important because aside from the horrific death toll of the bombings, both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were almost completely destroyed; it was that devastation that Young meant to call attention to. With someone who grew up in the aftermath of an atomic bomb’s detonation saying she thinks the oil sands look worse, we should perhaps get over our outrage at what Neil Young said and look at how oil sands excavation is actually affecting that area.
One reason this is difficult is that the oil sands are being dug up in fairly remote areas, so almost the only people who know firsthand what the area looks like are workers, industry types and maybe some government officials: all people with a vested interest in downplaying the industry’s ill effects.
The only other group of people that has access to oil sands and nearby land is aboriginal people, and they have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with the oil sands project. Unsurprisingly, their dissent is being largely ignored by the media, as it so often is: despite ongoing protests throughout the summer, the New Brunswick shale gas protests (also led largely by aboriginal people) got only a brief window of coverage when they turned violent.
It’s hard to say for sure why mainstream media outlets are so disinterested in aboriginal protests, but some factors are undoubtedly relevant: the people protesting are on the ground in the affected area, whereas journalists with larger platforms are usually centrally located in Toronto or Ottawa. Journalists and large news organizations won’t know what’s happening on the ground unless they pay exceedingly close attention, which they clearly haven’t.
Another reason is that despite living on this land for generations and having a much greater stake in it than others passing through have, aboriginal residents are almost always seen as “residents” rather than as “experts:” to be an expert on the oil sands, one must have an advanced degree or work in the oil industry or government.
Even though oil industry types and government officials are obviously compromised as impartial voices of authority, they tend to be trusted more easily than people with no “expertise” other than seeing, firsthand, on a daily basis, the effects of the rapid environmental changes oil sands excavation is creating.
With aboriginal voices all but erased from the larger conversation on the oil sands, things like the Neil Young dustup seem to the layman to be between Young, a rock star spouting radical analogies about human tragedy, and the sensible people of the government and media.
Sagata’s input, as someone who knows both the affected area in Japan and has seen the oil sands, is helpful in figuring out if Neil Young was making a good point or saying something both offensive and completely inaccurate. More helpful still would be bringing aboriginal voices to the fore and listening to what the people living near these sites have to say.