In a visit rivalling that of a royal dignitary, Canadian director James Cameron emerged as a high-profile voice for first nations groups who call Alberta's oil sands "a curse," pitting the Hollywood heavyweight against oil companies and the province that has long supported them.
Mr. Cameron effectively lent his celebrity to the leaders of several Alberta first nations by appearing with them Wednesday, thrusting their long-held complaints to unprecedented prominence.
But while many were wary of what Mr. Cameron describes as Hollywood "drive-by environmentalism," he wielded a keen understanding of the industry and its intricacies, after wrapping up a three-day oil-sands tour. He was praised even by his opponents for listening to industry, government and first nations alike.
But it's with the latter group that his heart clearly lies. Although he acknowledged the oil sands are a crucial economic driver, Mr. Cameron said open-pit mines are an "appalling" and "horrible" sight, industry-funded research is just a "prop," and he called for a moratorium on further development.
He lamented the state of the Athabasca River, which lies in the oil sands and has elevated levels of pollution. Many locals won't swim in the river - something that struck a chord with Mr. Cameron.
"I can't imagine being told by my mom I can't swim in the river. The idea of that is appalling to me," Mr. Cameron said.
He pledged to take up the cause of development, at a time when the U.S. government is considering a massive Keystone pipeline project and under pressure to distance itself from the oil sands. He urged the Alberta government to "put the brakes on" development until environmental impact can be assessed, saying the current science is inadequate.
"If I can do that in a way that's helpful to the plight of first nations people who really need that voice, I'm going to do it," Mr. Cameron said. "What I'm saying is there's an enormous upside potential in this thing, and upside should be able to fund the methodology to do this right, to use technology, to use science to do this thing right."
The director faces questions over what effect he can really have. He said he hoped to build awareness and, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, said, "yeah, maybe," when asked if he'd do a documentary or film about the oil sands. His visit also garnered extensive international attention - he lined up interviews Wednesday with the BBC, Los Angeles Times and MSNBC, among others, and was followed during his tour by a crew with the Oprah Winfrey Network.
"He is a person that bridges both business and culture, and his views on Alberta and the oil sands - like them or not - will be listened to by many," acknowledged Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, who met with Mr. Cameron Wednesday morning.
Mr. Cameron - who directed Avatar and Titanic, the two highest-grossing movies in box office history - urged the Premier to further tighten his province's environmental restrictions, and do away with its Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program, an industry-led water monitoring body.
"We need better and independent research, because the water monitoring has been funded by the oil industry," Mr. Cameron said, in an interview with The Globe and Mail following his news conference.
"But I did come here with a very, very strong set of opinions - you might even say passions - about what we need to be doing to save ourselves, and to save the natural world around us. Everything I learned I had to fit into that framework, and nothing that I saw challenged it."
Mr. Cameron's visit followed an invite by the residents of Fort Chipewyan, who have long complained about pollution caused by industry. It was one Fort Chipewyan leader who called the oil sands a "curse" Wednesday; Mr. Cameron said while he doesn't think that's yet true, they could become a curse if development continues without regard for the environment.
Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called Mr. Cameron's support a "very historic moment" for Alberta first nations. "We've had very few allies of the sort of stature of Mr. Cameron," he said.
Mr. Cameron toured an open-pit mine site and an in situ, or underground, site on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he met with opposition politicians (who regularly slam the government's environmental record) and Mr. Stelmach, with whom he "agreed to disagree" on most topics.
"Obviously his perspective is more based on economic growth, business in a recession economy and so on," Mr. Cameron acknowledged.
Mr. Stelmach said he and Mr. Cameron found some common ground.
"You know, the media frenzy today concerning Mr. Cameron's visit sharply contrasts with the many unheralded tours of government officials and researchers who visit the oil sands every week," Mr. Stelmach said. "It is this quiet diplomacy and advocacy which really matters."
Despite Mr. Cameron's support of first nations groups, many of which are suing the industry or the province over development, it was another chance for the oil industry to talk about the success it has had.
"We have to get our message out as an industry," said Drew Zieglgansberger, a vice-president of Cenovus Energy Inc.'s Christina Lake site, which he showed to Mr. Cameron Tuesday.
"Whatever conclusion [Mr. Cameron]comes to after that is his opinion. I'm not here to do war with him."