Dipping into Taiwan celebrity to fuel activism

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Not just another fringe artist with an eco-conscience.

This is a story about an activist/musician who is perhaps Canada's least-known environmental icon, an award-winning pop star in Taiwan and an official ambassador to indigenous peoples in both countries. He has lobbied Ottawa about North America's wolf slaughter, demonstrated in front of Washington's Capitol over the sovereignty of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and sat under a 3000-year-old cypress tree in Taiwan's Chi Lan Mountains talking to the Attayal people about water.

His path is convoluted, but it always leads back to the roof of North America.

Matthew Lien's activist mother started telling him at age seven about the north and how the Arctic's ecosystem was too fragile to exploit. He saw it for himself during the summers he'd spend on vacation at his father's lodge in the Yukon. The place had an intensity, and it created the echo of music in his head. In 1981, at 16, he moved north permanently, a bobble-headed teenager figuring he could become a pop star.

“This place resonates for people who feel out of place. It didn't take long for the amazing wilderness around Whitehorse to blur the difference between the sounds of the environment and those of my music,” he says.

By the mid-'80s, Lien was beginning to marry his musical talent to evidence that the Arctic was viewed increasingly as just one more exploitable resource, mainly the oil beneath the tundra. Interactions with indigenous people and animals became a muse, especially the Gwich'in people of the Yukon's north shore and the Porcupine Caribou herd they followed for their existence.

The combination may have been motivating, but it lacked focus for a young, traveling musician. Customers in northern bars and taverns were more interested in forgetting the problems around them. Lien had bills to pay, and his repertoire rarely swayed from the soothing.

After a fifth straight night of small-town touring, and far too much beer, Lien stopped short. “I wondered just what the hell I was doing, all these one-night stands, all this drinking. And then I made a decision. I had to follow what I really had in my heart, which was to interpret how I felt about the environment around me,” he says. It would be a gamble, and Lien knew he had to refocus on that place near the top of the world.

Ivvavik National Park's 10,000 square miles are tucked so neatly into the Yukon's high north that when Ivvavik ends, Canada ends.

But one of the park's borders is profoundly important. Running southwest from the Arctic Ocean across the 140th line of longitude, Ivvavik becomes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

Also known as the calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou herd (the continent's biggest) ANWR's location has always been in the sites of American business. Big Oil covets the huge, crude reserves that geologists say are under the coast's northern slope.

For years environmentalists have stymied drilling, even securing national-park status that is supposed to preclude any development activity. Yet by the early 1990s, oil exploration was back on, inching right up to ANWR's western boundary.

In 1992 Lien and photographer friend Ken Madsen drew up plans for Caribou Commons, a multimedia project to expose the threat that development posed to the Porcupine herd. It so happened that right then, the U.S. administration under then-president Bill Clinton was honouring ANWR's national-park status, and Lien temporarily changed his focus. The result was Bleeding Wolves (1994), a full-length music CD scowling at the slaughter of wolves.

This attention helped convince the Canadian government to outlaw indiscriminate killing of the canine. It would also change Lien's life, as a strange twist of entertainment-industry fate began to erase his reputation as just another fringe artist with an eco-conscience.

In 1996, the owner of Taiwanese New-Age and ethnic-music label Wind Records was looking for international repertoire to add to his roster. Ken Yang first heard Bleeding Wolves at an independent music conference in Cannes, France. Bowled over by Lien's honesty and clarity, he bought the Taiwan distribution rights.

The album sold 5,000 units in its first week and 200,000 by the end of 1996, sending it to the top of the country's international music charts. It was also boosted by a best-selling book written by inmates at Tingwan Prison about how the album had affected their lives, and Yang immediately set up an album-support tour.

As sales grew, businessman and artist looked for new projects that would suit the growing environmental sensibility creeping into the highly industrialized island nation. These drew Lien into contact with the country's indigenous peoples, from whom he drew inspiration and for whom he was to become an icon.

One result was Confluence, a chart-topping album that tapped some of Taiwan's best-known musicians as contributors and drew attention throughout Taiwan to the need for more wilderness protection areas. The album was so popular, incoming president Chen Shui Bian used one of the tracks for his inauguration, and Lien was invited to headline at a fund-raising concert after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake devastated Taiwan in 1999. Another release, Voyage to Paradise, brought a Golden Melody Award, Taiwan's Grammy. Lien was the first-ever foreigner to win.

In 2000, the government of the country's Kaohsiung province appointed him “Ambassador of Aboriginal Culture” for his work defining ecological and First Nations' issues. The Yukon government named him “Special Envoy to Taiwan” for the link he established between indigenous peoples in Canada and Taiwan. He used these positions to lobby Taiwan's national government for a seventh wilderness area, home to rare, 3000-year-old Red Cypress trees. While official conservation status is still in the works, all logging is on hold.

Lien rarely dips into his Taiwan celebrity to fuel his activism at home, although an upcoming project called “Connections” will look at links between Taiwan and the Arctic, such as two species of bird that depend on both places. Moving between the environmental sensibilities of eastern and western cultures comes naturally; the ongoing battle for ANWR protection requires a much-more proactive stance.

He and Madsen finished and released Caribou Commons in 1999, and Lien is putting the finishing touches on Arctic Refuge, the most-complete examination yet of the region and its inhabitants. (An earlier version, using Caribou Commons tracks, was commissioned on DVD by Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for educational use by its offices and affiliate organizations around the world.) He also organized and wrote the soundtrack for last year's Walk to Washington.

In 2001, Lien received a Parliamentary Certificate of Honour for his environmental activism and in 2002 was finally recognized by the Canadian music industry with a West Coast Music Award. In 2003, his publishing rights were picked up by Warner-Chappell, although distribution and sales in North America are still a challenge. The commercial side of the music industry is rarely on Lien's radar. “Because of my tendency to try and find the deeper level of truth all the time, my concept of success always changes,” he says.

But Matthew Lien is not tickled that Canadians have yet to embrace what is now a 20-year-old professional career. In one way he's still that bobble-headed teenager looking for stardom, but now it has to be on his own terms, not those of an idol-obsessed marketplace.

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