FORT CHIPEWYAN — The tiny, isolated community of Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta has seen plenty of well-intentioned southerners fly up to hear its concerns about living downstream from the industrial megalopolis of the oilsands.
“We’ve had major events where hundreds of people came to town. We’ve had community meetings with the oil industry, with government and on and on,” said John Rigney, special projects manager for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Local people are on a first-name basis with prominent scientists who study the area. Fort Chip, as it’s known, has been visited by 10 documentary crews in the last 10 years — a lot of attention for a hamlet that doesn’t even have a four-season road.
“People in business suits,” shrugged Rigney. “(They) come in and listen for a few minutes.”
But the community of about 1,000 on the shores of Lake Athabasca in Alberta’s northeastern corner is preparing itself for an entirely new close up.
Hollywood director James Cameron, known almost as well for his vigorous environmental activism as for blockbuster movies such as Titanic and Avatar, is planning to visit the community on Tuesday to hear for himself how people feel about the rapid growth of oilsands operations and their affect on land and water.
They’ll probably outline to Cameron the same complaints they’ve been making to the Alberta government for years: fish from the Athabasca River doesn’t taste the same; water levels in the lake are dropping; there are unusually high rates of rare cancers.
“The health issues come to the forefront,” Rigney said.
Plans for Cameron’s afternoon visit — he’ll spend the morning talking to industry officials in Fort McMurray — are sketchy. So, too, are any details of a meeting Wednesday in Edmonton with Premier Ed Stelmach.
But excitement is building.
“Everybody’s talking about it,” said Lacey Whiteknife, who works at Fort Chipewyan’s Northern Store.
Avatar — Cameron’s latest film about a group of indigenous people who try to save their planet from greedy exploiters — is a popular movie in Fort Chip. It was even shown at the school to reward students who were performing well.
And, yes, people have drawn parallels.
“Everyone’s been saying it’s from the oilsands,” Whiteknife said.
Cameron, who is Canadian-born and credits his love of nature to growing up in Ontario’s Niagara country, might be just another drop-in for some in Fort Chip. But his star power can make a big difference to what kind of profile the oilsands get in the United States, said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council.
“When someone like James Cameron, who’s very well respected and who’s widely known, goes to see the tarsands with his own eyes and provides his impression, that’s something that will be heard by people around the United States,” she said.
She points out that Cameron has more than star power — he’s got a long history of environmental activism that includes rain forest preservation, climate change action and ocean conservation.
“With ’Avatar’ especially he’s really stepped forward as an environmental spokesperson,” said Casey-Lefkowitz. “He’s also shown a great affinity for First Nations issues over time.”
Last spring, Cameron made two tours to a remote tributary of the Amazon River where he joined with Amazon Watch to try to stop the construction of a massive dam. Indigenous leaders streaked Cameron’s face with warrior paint and gave him a headdress and a spear.
But not everyone in Fort Chip is star-struck.
Many people contacted late last week didn’t know the famous director was coming. One man said local gossip, not the Hollywood A-list, is the talk of the town.
Northerners tend not to be as tightly connected to the southern media machine, said Rigney. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t willing — one more time — to tell their story to another guy getting off a plane.
“Any event like this is a big deal in the community, because for 10 or 15 years the community’s been hollering about the impacts and nobody’s listened,” Rigney said.
He warned the meetings can get intense.
“Alberta still doesn’t understand what we’re about. We’re not trying to stop Alberta from developing, we’re trying to defend our community from a looming disaster.”