Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

An Open Letter to Neil Young on Oil Sands, Fort McMurray, and Home

Dear Neil,

Recently just before you came to Fort McMurray my friend Tim Moen asked if I would be willing to speak to you if the opportunity arose. Tim asked me because he knows I am passionate about this community and the people in it, and that I could provide a perspective on life here that you might not expect to hear. In the end your production schedule precluded that meeting, and I am sorry, not because I needed to meet you, but because I think you needed to meet some residents in this region who could share some thoughts with you about life here. When Tim asked if I could meet with you I began to think about what I wanted to tell you, and since I didn't get to tell you in person I will do it in my blog - so here goes.

Welcome to Fort McMurray, Neil. This is not the place you think it is. Oh, sure, it is the home of the oil sands, and that is our major industry - but it is, as the ads say, so much more than oil. This community is home to thousands of people who live, work, and play here. And some of them, like me, love it. In fact some of us love it so much it feels more like home than anywhere else we have ever lived, and we work every single day to try to make it a better place - and that includes the industry.

I don't think the industry is perfect, Neil. I have that dialogue here a lot, actually, about how to make oil sands cleaner, how to reclaim the land and continue to provide the world with a desired and valuable resource while also trying to maintain our natural boreal forest and preserve the environment. It's a balancing act, Neil, and while it hasn't always been properly balanced in the past we are trying to get it better - because oil matters.

You know, Neil, if oil was replaced tomorrow by another energy source I would be okay with that. If it could make sure we could continue to connect all the remote parts of this nation, and others, get our goods and products to the people who need them, and enable us to continue our lives but in a greener way not reliant on fossil fuels? I'd be behind that 100% - but that isn't the reality right now. Our farms and factories and even our families currently rely on safe, reliable production of oil, which is why I think it is so important we make sure the oil sands industry does get the balance right, and provides a resource that while not perfect is better and creates less impact on the environment - because I care about the environment. In fact I would call myself an environmentalist.

An environmentalist, living in Fort McMurray? Yep. You see years ago I was a card-carrying member of Greenpeace. I also participated in the anti-nuclear rallies in the 8o's - remember those, when we protested the cruise missile being tested in Canada? Neil, I care about the environment. I care about the people here, including all those who are First Nations and live in our rural communities. And I care about the community, because the community is the people, and I want to see what is best for them.

I don't know how much you know about Fort McMurray, Neil. I imagine you know a bit about the oil sands, and I understand you have long advocated for better conditions and treatment of First Nations peoples, and I respect that. What I don't know is if you understand that Fort McMurray is also a community of people - moms and dads, toddlers and babies, teens and grandparents. When we say we are more than oil sands we mean it. There is a difference between community and industry, and while the two are related and do connect it isn't all the same thing. I wish we could have talked about that, because I would have told you about my Fort McMurray.

And my Fort McMurray? It's an amazing place, Neil. It's not perfect, you know. It has some problems, and I, and many, many others, recognize them, and we are trying to work on them. But you see that's what you do with things you love. When the cedar chest my dad made for my mom years before they both died needed refinishing I didn't throw it out and buy a new one. I took that old cedar chest and had it restored, because I loved it. I saw the flaws and imperfections, and fixed them. And I will do it again, as often as I need to, because when you love something you want to make it better - and that's how I feel about Fort McMurray. You see I moved here when my daughter was about to turn three. I came as a stay-at-home mom, married, and without a career or job in this place. Now my daughter is about to turn fourteen, and I am a single woman with a career I love and a job where I can make a difference every day. I came to this place in search of home, and I found it. I found the place where I want my daughter to grow up, but not because it's perfect. It's because she and I can make a difference here, and not only can we but we want to - because it is home.

And Neil there are thousands of people who call this home, not just me, and people who are just as passionate about this place as we are. And the funny thing is I think we all care about the environment, and about industry being as clean as it can be, and about preserving the world - because we care about community, and we know we are not some island floating on the planet. We know we carry a heavy responsibility because we have been gifted with this tremendous resource, and we have to develop it in a responsible way that meets the needs of the world today while also considering the future. And why is this important? Because we have children, too, Neil, and because we want to leave the world a better place for them than the way we found it.

Maybe you should come back to Fort McMurray, Neil. I'd love to chat with you, and even if you don't talk to me perhaps you can talk to my friends who have come here from all over the world to find a home. Or maybe you can talk to some of those who grew up here, and who have lived in this region for generations. Or better yet maybe you can skip me and those others and talk to my daughter, who could tell you about Fort McMurray, and life, and community, and why this is home for her. Maybe she could share with you her love of the environment, and her understanding of the role of community, industry, and those of us who live in this place. The door is open, Neil, and while she may not really know your music she knows this place like she knows her own heart, and I know she would share it with you willingly.

Long may you run, Neil. Thank you for coming to visit us, and maybe you'll consider coming back one day but spending a bit longer and casting your net a bit wider. I think you might learn some new things about us, and at the very least you could share with more of us who live, work, and play here your thoughts so we can better understand them. This is a dialogue that isn't closed, Neil, and nor is the door. It's always open to those who want to come here with an open heart and mind and who are as willing to listen to us as we are willing to listen to them. I hope one day you walk through it, and into a community with a heart of gold.

Best wishes on your journeys,


  1. Excellent! Neil's talk really irked me. I can imagine that many people from Hiroshima could write a perfect response too. Present day Hiroshima is a beautiful modern rebuilt city and why on earth he would compare Ft M to a post A-bomb Hiroshima is incomprehensible.

  2. This morning I drove past our white tailings sand on the way to Syncrude, as I have for the past 37 years and thought about what Neil Young had to say. Neil used to be one of my favorites, I have so many teenage memories which are revived whenever I hear his music. Neil always seemed to speak such down to earth truth. So this morning I felt betrayed.
    Rex Murphy broadcast CBC Cross Country Checkup from Mac Island a few months ago, Mark Little from Suncor eloquently said that we are the largest environment cleanup project in the world. We take thick black tarsand, which has for thousands of years been the cliffs on the banks of the Athabasca River, and turn it into white sand.
    As I drove past the white sand which used to be black I thought, we do an amazing job.
    The world needs our energy for now. I hope, someday we have viable alternatives, and good people will tell truths and that my teenage memories will continue to be conjured by Neil’s music.

  3. Beautifully written Theresa! I would hope that Neil comes back to visit our Ft McMurray.. I called Ft McMurray home for 18 years and have friends who have called it home for many years.

  4. I hope you will publish Neil's response. Yours is an uplifting and down to earth reflection. Thank you!

  5. Beautiful...thank you Theresa...

  6. Neil should stick to singing songs as he is clearly a very ignorant man when it comes to the community of Fort McMurray. He's nothing more than an opportunist jumping on the environmental band wagon and enriching himself at the expense of others.

  7. Thank you for your response. I sincerely hope he sees it. I have raised 5 children here who are all well educated & gainfully employed. I have eight grand-children attending school & flourishing in this community that we all call home. Fort McMurray gets such a bad rap and it is so frustrating.

  8. So sad to hear that this man did NOT follow up his facts, sorry Neil, but u r wrong!!!

  9. Lovely, well written, and concise...and probably wasted On Neil Young. I hope not.