How to do celebrity politics right in Canada

What do the political interventions of two different Canadian celebrities into their country’s hot button issues, tell us about the state of Canadian celebrity politics?

Which publicity stunts am I referring to?  In December Pam “Baywatch” Anderson (and spokeswoman for PETA) and Sam “The Simpsons” Simon, travelled to St John’s Newfoundland where they dropped off an oversized novelty cheque (to quote minor Simpson’s character Trong Van Ding) for one million dollars at the office of the Canadian Sealers Association with the goal of buying out the licences of Canadian Sealers and ending the commercial seal hunt (note that they are not opposed to the traditional aboriginal hunt, nor is any serious animal welfare organization in Canada).  Though they recognize what any informed Canadian observer has concluded a long time ago; namely that the industry, such as it is, is in terminal decline and can’t possibly survive after the recent decision of the WTO to uphold the ban imposed by the EU on the imports of Canadian seal products, Canadian sealers and many average Canadians naturally resent these Hollywood types flying in for photo-ops with adorable baby seals and then buggering off back home when they’re  done.

The whole misadventure serves to perpetuate the stereotypes, no matter how untrue, promoted by government apologists for the industry who love to portray the seal hunt as a humble Newfoundland tradition under siege from a smug liberal group of urban vegetarians and the international celebrity jet-set who haven’t a clue about the lives of hard-working fisherman living in rural Atlantic Canada.

Contrast this with Neil Young’s Honour the Treaties tour, that includes Jazz singer Diana Krall, and, crucially, has the support of Athabasca Chipewayan First Nations, a community living near the tar sands development in Northern Alberta, whose members are currently suffering all kinds of ill-effects in both health and their traditional economy of hunting, fishing and agriculture, due to the massive pollution generated by the oil industry on their lands.

Mr. Young has not shied away from controversy either.  His criticism of tar sand development was not confined to the oil companies involved in resource extraction (though there was plenty of that).  Rather it focused mostly on the natural resource management, environmental and energy policies of the Harper government with respect to the Alberta Tar sands generally, and the Jackpine Expansion Mine project, in particular.

The series of concerts across Canada are designed not only to raise awareness about the struggle of First Nations to exercise their constitutional rights to be consulted and compensated by the government for the massive profits being reaped by transnational companies like Shell Canada that are exploiting resources on their ancestral territory.  But also to finance the extremely complex and costly litigation being launched by the aboriginal community to reverse the green light given by the Feds (Environment Canada) for the expansion of the Jackpine Mine project.

Mr. Young is and should be lauded for the tremendous concern he is showing for what is happening in a part of the Country that most of us hardly ever see and his passionate appeal to us all on behalf of those who rarely get heard by mainstream media.  The fact that the Harper government has lashed out at Mr. Young for his allegedly leading the “lifestyle of a rock star” speaks volumes about the defensiveness of the government on this issue and the lengths it will go to discredit those that challenge its policies in this area ( Shell Canada’s response was rather measured, by comparison.)

The key to doing celebrity politics right in Canada ,then, appears to be  about choosing an eloquent spokesperson with at least a modicum of credibility on the issue (Neil Young has long been involved in various environmental causes) and partner them with a locally based organization with a direct stake in the project’s outcome.  A significant stakeholder with firsthand knowledge of the problems on the ground and a strong commitment to finding viable, practical solutions to the issues, is invaluable.  Rather than a couple of showbiz outsiders more interested in scoring points with the media and their supporters back home, than any long term discussion with industry and other stakeholders involved in the dispute.


Other articles by David DesBaillets

Homeless problem in Montreal becomes political controversy after You Tube video goes viral

Harper government’s antipathy to harm reduction will harm progress made by sex workers

Follow David DesBaillets on twitter @DDesBaillets


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