01/11/2014 10:14 EST | Updated 03/13/2014 05:59 EDT

Neil Young Benefit Tour Inspires Ex-Oilsands Worker

Stephen Barnett via Getty Images

Lionel Lepine says watching Neil Young from his front row seats at the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina next Friday will be a dream come true. 

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation member and aspiring guitar player is on his way to Regina to see the rock legend perform on Jan. 17. The concert is part of Young's Honour the Treaties tour, the proceeds of which will go toward the First Nation's legal battle against multiple projects in the Athabasca oilsands.

Lepine's sister won the tickets at a Christmas party in their Fort Chipewyan community, north of Fort McMurray, Alta. 

"For him to do this concert for my people, well not many other musicians would do a show like this, but he sees that there's a big problem going on down there in the tarsands," Lepine said.

Young visited the oilsands just outside of Fort McMurray last year, and after being shocked by the image of the vast crater-like impact of the oilsands on the land — an image he compared to the landscape of Hiroshima after it was hit by a nuclear bomb in 1945 — he decided to take action.

The Canadian rocker is now holding four benefit concerts in support of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and its fight against further oilsands development. The expansion of Shell Canada's Jackpine Mine was approved by regulators last month.

A difficult decision

Lepine says he hopes concertgoers will get the message the First Nation is trying to send out.

"Look at industry and what all the companies have done so far, which is only about 10 per cent of what they are going to do," he said. "Some call it the smell of money, but I call it the smell of death. This is what's killing the environment, but it's also killing us as human beings, and Neil Young noticed that right away."

Lepine wasn't always against oilsands development. He used to be a heavy hauler for energy giant Suncor, but it wasn’t long before he started to question his work.

"As I'd wait for my turn to drop off my [top soil] load, I'd look at the view of the Athabasca River, and I'd get lonely and depressed thinking about my uncle hunting ducks there," Lepine said. "But it would take my mind off what I was doing; it would be my escape."

He says the sedentary nature of the work gave him time to imagine how the land looked prior to the mine's development, but he often found the work eerie. 

"I'd be putting loads in my truck and say, 'Wait a minute, maybe I have some old artifacts here in my truck or some old ancestors. Maybe it's my great- great- great-grandfather or grandmother here in my truck, and I am dumping them here'."

For Lepine, being a new father living in an expensive town made leaving the job a hard decision, but it was something he felt compelled to do.

"I will never forget the day I quit, the supervisor kept reminding me that it was stat holiday, it was thanksgiving, so I could have got triple [pay]. I could have made $1,200 that day, but no, I said, 'I really can't be paid enough to do this anymore.'"

Learning from elders

Listening to leaders and elders in his community strengthened Lepine's resolve.

"There are so many people that I know who were there, and finally got woken up to leave. But it's hard when people have nice things, big screen TVs, trucks... It's hard to leave that."

Lepine says the cost of living in Fort McMurray is high, and that makes the lure of working in the oilsands strong, especially for young people.

The cost of a jug of milk in Fort Chipewyan is close to $11, and the cost of heating a home can be as high as $800 a month. 

Lepine is now living on employment insurance and has two children to support.

He has travelled to England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands trying to educate people about the negative impact of oilsands development.  

Eriel Deranger is the communications co-ordinator for the ACFN. She's going to be in Toronto for the first stop on Young's tour, Massey Hall on Sunday night.

"I'm incredibly excited and honoured to be a part of this tour," she said. "You know, Neil Young's support and backing of  the Athabasca First Nation and our legal challenges is a huge boon for our nation and a really good morale booster to encourage us to continue moving forward in the direction that we have been going in the past few years."

Toronto’s concert will be prefaced by a press conference at 1 p.m. that will be attended by Deranger, Young, Chief Allan Adam, climate scientist Andrew Weaver and David Suzuki. 

As for Lepine, he says it would be his ultimate dream to jump up on stage and sing with Young and thank him for bringing attention to this issue.

Young and opening act Diana Krall play Winnipeg on Jan. 16 and Calgary on Jan. 19.

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