Skip to main content

Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio is ruffling feathers in Alberta after becoming the latest celebrity to visit the province and shine a critical spotlight on Canada’s oil sands.The Canadian Press

Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio is ruffling feathers in Alberta after becoming the latest celebrity to visit the province and shine a critical spotlight on Canada's oil sands.

Both the Alberta government and the oil industry came to the defence of the oil sands after Mr. DiCaprio travelled Friday to Fort McMurray, the heart of the oil-sands industry, as well as to the small community Fort Chipewyan, which has drawn world attention to health and environmental concerns.

The purpose of the trip was to reportedly research a documentary, but The Wolf of Wall Street actor has already staked a high-profile position as an environmentalist and critic of big oil. A video released last week, narrated by Mr. DiCaprio, warns about climate change and depicts the fossil-fuel industry as a robotic monster stomping over the Earth.

"They drill, they extract, making trillions of dollars," Mr. DiCaprio says about the industry, in the video titled 'Carbon'. "We must fight to keep this carbon in the ground."

Both Alberta and its oil industry responded with criticism Sunday to the actor's visit, which follows on the heels of other celebrity attacks on oil-sand development by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, musician Neil Young and film director James Cameron.

"Like Canadians, we [the industry] are growing tired of the fad of celebrity environmentalists coming into the region for a few hours or a few days, and offering their ideas and solutions to developing this resource," Lee Funke, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said on Sunday.

Canadians are looking for an industry commitment to produce the resource in a "responsible way," he said, "and that's just what we're doing."

Alberta Energy Minister Diana McQueen defended oil-sands development as "transparent and responsible" and said it was important to have "fact-based conversations" about energy.

"We respect people's right to their opinions," she said through a spokesman in an e-mail on Sunday. "At the same time, we believe reasonable people recognize the world needs all forms of energy, including fossil fuels, developed responsibly to meet its needs." She added: "Aside from the economic opportunities the oil sands create for Albertans and Canadians, the taxes and royalties generated from the oil-sands development provide funding for the infrastructure and programs that contribute to Canada's high standard of living."

Mr. DiCaprio was accompanied on his visit by Darren Aronofsky, the Hollywood director behind the blockbusters The Wrestler and Black Swan. Mr. Aronofsky posted to his 179,000 followers last Thursday that he was beginning a "3day tour of #tarsands." He followed up later with the tweet: "Woodland caribou doomed."

Both men flew into the remote community of Fort Chipewyan on Friday for a tour and a lunch in the elders' lodge, posing for photos with community members and native leaders.

"It was a great boon for the community," said Eriel Deranger, communications co-ordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "It's a reflection that we are getting our message across, and I'm happy to see a slew of celebrities showing concerns for what is happening in the region."

David Schindler, professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, said he welcomes visits from celebrities such as Mr. DiCaprio, who "at least seems to have some interests in the world outside Hollywood."

"Just calling attention to the oil sands will get people to have a hard look at it. What's needed in a democracy is for people to see the real issues, pro and con," Prof. Schindler said, adding that the industry spends heavily on ads to defend its side, which is "much rosier than reality."

Interact with The Globe