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James Cameron in oilsands 'sponge mode'

FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alta. - The people of Fort Chipewyan have a titanic new ally in their fight to keep their lands and waters clean in the face of growing oilsands development upstream from their community.

FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alta. - The people of Fort Chipewyan have a titanic new ally in their fight to keep their lands and waters clean in the face of growing oilsands development upstream from their community.

After a closed-door meeting Tuesday, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said famed film director James Cameron has promised to do what he can to keep helping their cause.

"It's going to be a beautiful relationship," said Adam.

"I'm here to help," agreed Cameron, though he didn't specify what form his support would take.

The Hollywood heavyweight arrived in Fort McMurray on Monday and almost immediately departed on an aerial tour of the oilsands with native leaders who have complained that oilsands pollution is ruining fish stocks and giving them cancer.

Cameron spoke briefly to reporters about the inspiration for his visit — his belief that places such as the oilsands are very much like the fictional planet Pandora in his movie "Avatar," where mining expansion threatened the indigenous population.

Cameron spent Tuesday morning touring oilsands operations south of Fort Chipewyan with Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner and industry representatives. They visited Syncrude’s Bill’s Lake, an area the company has turned back to wilderness after mining the oily bitumen below the surface.

But he said it was the afternoon meeting with Adam and other community leaders that most impressed him.

"When you come here, the appeal is so passionate and so deeply concerned and you can really feel these people are worried for their kids," said the director, who was born and raised in Ontario.

"When you can't trust the water it's a terrifying thing."

Cameron said he was also encouraged by what he heard in his morning meeting with politicians and oilsands officials.

"Nobody's talking about stopping this development," he stressed. "This is too important an energy source for all of North America. I think it's just a question of creating accountability in government and industry to the public good."

Native leaders had issued an invitation to Cameron to visit after hearing him call the oilsands a "black eye" to Canada's reputation earlier this year. On Tuesday, however, he insisted that his mind is open.

"I'm still taking it in," he said. "I am still in sponge mode, just sort of finding out how all this works and getting my arms around it conceptually."

He said he didn't want all the media attention, but it "snowballed" into a fact-finding expedition.

"But that's great, too, because it's actually providing a forum for everyone to get their views heard on the media stage.

"Ultimately, it's the public will, which the government must represent, that's going to determine the outcome of all this," Cameron said.

He was to meet with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach in Edmonton on Wednesday.

"I think it is impossible to expect what is going on out here," Cameron said.

"You can look at pictures of it, but until you have flown over it and you see the scope and scale of it ,you don't really realize what an enormous undertaking thisis."

Cameron travelled to Brazil twice earlier this year and joined an environmental group called Amazon Watch to try to stop the construction of a massive dam.

The dam project is still going ahead, but environmentalists say Cameron's visits to remote villages brought the issue worldwide attention.

Several scientific studies have suggested that toxic heavy metals and hydrocarbons in the soil and water are linked to industrial emissions.

Last week, the Alberta government announced it would create an independent panel of scientists to try to determine the source of the contamination.

 
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