Celebrity oilsands bullies

Alberta must be getting a sense of what it’s like to be the victim of the school yard bullies. Once one starts picking on you, all the others figure you’re fair game. The latest big hitter to take a swipe at Alberta’s biggest industry is Leonardo DiCaprio. His tour to the Northern Alberta “tar sands” comes on the heels of visits by such high-profile heavy hitters as Neil Young, James Cameron and even spiritual leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Alberta must be getting a sense of what it’s like to be the victim of the school yard bullies. Once one starts picking on you, all the others figure you’re fair game.

The latest big hitter to take a swipe at Alberta’s biggest industry is Leonardo DiCaprio. His tour to the Northern Alberta “tar sands” comes on the heels of visits by such high-profile heavy hitters as Neil Young, James Cameron and even spiritual leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In fairness, it’s hard to think of them as bullies, until they get on their high moral horses.

Tutu is the odd man out in this group, with a track record of courage and conviction from his leadership days on South Africa issues that puts the Hollywood gang to shame. Even if you don’t agree with his assessment that the oilsands development is “evil,” you still have to respect the man and listen to what he says because of everything that he’s done.

The rest are entertainers, who have made their fortunes through pop culture. Perhaps their celebrity alone gives them a mandate to speak out, but their fame should never be confused with having the credentials necessary to be recognized as authorities on the causes they choose.

They are not scientists who build their case on the foundation of evidence; nor are they reporters, who are expected to vet the facts they are given. Instead, each is a powerful communicator who employs their talent and fame to broadcast the messages on behalf of like-minded comrades in the cause.

So, while they intentions can be seen to be noble, the execution of the message can be found wanting. The misstatements range from simple exaggerations to melodrama to complete falsehoods.

Case in point: DiCaprio was quoted this week as saying the oil companies behind the oilsands make “trillions of dollars” — a clear exaggeration. One of DiCaprio’s sidekicks, Hollywood director Darren Aronofsky, tweeted “Woodland caribou doomed” — a deliberate overstatement on the state of a species that is indeed endangered but not fated to disappear.

I’ve previously written about Young and his unfortunate hyperbole comparing the oilsands near Fort McMurray to Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb. It should come as no surprise that families of those who perished in Japan took umbrage.

Critics have their place, but those who listen to them should seek out the rest of the story.

Are First Nations people being hosed? Not according to Dave Tuccaro, an entrepreneur and member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan. He estimates that native-owned and controlled corporations earned more than $1 billion in annual revenues from the oilsands in 2012. Companies run by the Fort McKay, Mikisew Cree and the Athabasca Chipewyan bands bring in more than half a billion a year, he calculated, while Primco Dene Ltd., an oilpatch services company owned by the Cold Lake First Nation, employees hundreds of aboriginals.

Using celebrity to draw attention to important subjects such as energy development’s impact on communities, health and the environment is not a bad thing, so long as an engaged public then does its own due diligence to learn the complete story.

All resource industries are learning that they must engage with the communities in which they want to develop. Hollow promises don’t wash; they have been clearly told that how they perform today will affect their ability to pursue similar projects in the future.

So it may matter less whether the celebrities have their facts right than that they are driving the conversations. What is more important is how citizens respond to those assertions. If they are intrigued enough to learn more, then the outcome can be positive.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media. Read more troymedia.com.

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