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The red carpet is rolled out in Alberta oilsands city of Fort McMurray

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - Tammy Brundage finishes gassing up her SUV and pauses a moment to consider the visit of famed film director and outspoken environmental advocate James Cameron to the city where she makes her living.

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - Tammy Brundage finishes gassing up her SUV and pauses a moment to consider the visit of famed film director and outspoken environmental advocate James Cameron to the city where she makes her living.

"I think it's a good idea," said Brundage, who works in the safety department at one of the oilsands companies that are the economic backbone of Fort McMurray.

"He bashed us, now he needs to come up and see that we're not as bad as he thinks. We're doing things to make things better. It's not just all bad."

Cameron arrived in Fort McMurray on Monday afternoon and immediately met with native leaders. On Tuesday, he is to meet with oilsands officials for a quick tour before heading to Fort Chipewyan, where he'll talk with people concerned about the health effects of living downstream of the giant industrial area. He's scheduled to meet with Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach on Wednesday.

But Cameron has already expressed some strong opinions on the oilsands, calling them a "black eye" for Canada, the land of his birth.

In Fort McMurray, that stings.

"I think industry is (well-handled)," said Syncrude employee Cory Barnes, who's lived in the oilsands city for 11 years. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be raising my family here."

Residents suggest outside critics should come see for themselves before pronouncing judgment.

"I think it's a good thing," said Dennis Oldfield, who works as a labourer in the oilsands. "I hope he gets a clear understanding of what's going on, that we do need the oil and we need the jobs."

Shawn Bellin, who's worked for Syncrude for the last three years, agreed.

"They need to form an opinion of their own from seeing it. You never really understand something until you see it yourself."

No one is expecting the visit to make a convert out of Cameron, who has a history of supporting environmental causes from rainforest preservation to ocean conservation. But if it makes him think a little harder, the visit will be worth it, they say.

"A lot of people tend to keep their preconceived opinions even after they see ... everything that's going on around here, so I doubt it'll change anything," said Sarah Rodgers, an English instructor at Fort McMurray's Keyano College.

"But it might make him think about his opinion, which I suppose is progress."

For better or for worse, famous people are influential, she said.

"He's popular and everybody recognizes his name, which means people listen to him, but whether or not he's as knowledgeable as somebody that's taken courses and training in the subject remains to be determined."

Locals are aware the industry that keeps their city humming has environmental challenges.

"Environmental things are really strong today, so we have to face the opposition and deal with it," said Oldfield. "Whatever it takes to clean things up, clean the air up, clean the landscaping up, it has to be done."

Several scientific reports have made increasingly strong suggestions that toxic heavy metals and hydrocarbons in the soil and water are linked to industrial emissions. Last week, the Alberta government announced it would strike an independent panel of scientists to try to determine once and for all the source of the contamination.

But residents are tired of being known as the home of so-called dirty oil.

"What they've just heard is the negative things," said Sheila Cuaresma. "But they don't know that there are lots of places here in oilsands Fort McMurray that are really cool and nice and not just the oilsands."

Brundage suggests Cameron may want to focus a little closer to home.

"I just came back from (Los Angeles), and we had to cut the smog with scissors. I can breathe up here."

 
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