Alberta should put a moratorium on approving new tailings ponds until the science evolves to better handle the waste from oilsands mining, Avatar director James Cameron suggested Wednesday after a three-day tour of the controversial oil deposits.
Reclamation of tailings ponds isn't yet sufficiently viable — either economically or scientifically — to offset the environmental impact of oilsands mining, and the province needs to regulate the industry more closely, he added.
"[The oilsands deposit] will be a curse if it's not managed properly. It can also be a great gift to Canada and to Alberta, if it is managed properly," Cameron told a news conference in Edmonton.
The Canadian-born director, whose blockbuster science fiction film Avatar tells a cautionary tale of corporate greed and the fight over natural resources, was joined by a number of First Nations leaders.
They included the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Alteo; Al Lameman, the chief of the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation; Gerald Amos of the B.C.-based Coastal First Nations Alliance, and activist and former Mikisew Cree chief George Poitras.
Cameron called the development of the oilsands the biggest gold rush since 1849 and called on government to provide stronger regulations on the reclamation of the land and spend more money on scientific research.
"It will be a good investment in the future to do the science and to make sure that the science is transparent, that it is open to the public, that it's not funded by industry, that there's independent oversight, that there's proper peer review."
Any movement forward must include real, not token, involvement from First Nations people, he said. Cameron said he will keep meeting with chiefs to ensure the issue is moving in a positive direction.
"I'm in for the long term."
The oilsands are an important interim resource for weaning North America off oil from the Middle East, but he admitted his first impression of the mines wasn't very good.
"My very first impression flying out of Fort McMurray was, 'my God, what beautiful country …' and then to fly into the big open pit mines and the tailings ponds and all that, it was horrific," he said.
Meeting 'respectful', Stelmach says
Earlier Wednesday, Cameron met with Premier Ed Stelmach and Alberta NDP environment critic Rachel Notley.
Cameron characterized his meeting with Stelmach as "gracious and polite" and said they agreed to disagree on some points.
Stelmach called the meeting "respectful," and said he shares a common rural background with Cameron.
In his news conference, the premier brushed off suggestions Alberta needs to improve its oilsands regulation and curb expansion, saying the province is already involving First Nations and undertaking the environmental study and monitoring Cameron called for.
"I don't know if we've changed anyone's mind," Stelmach said. "By meeting, there's a 50-50 per cent chance that if you've at least put information on the table, telling Mr. Cameron the way it is in Alberta. If I had not met, it would have been zero chance, zero opportunity."
Cameron meets with opposition MLA, scientist
At a breakfast meeting, Notley shared her views on oilsands development with Cameron, and stressed concerns that Alberta needs a strong environmental protection regime.
"The oilsands are a responsibility and it's a responsibility that at this point, this government is not meeting," she said.
"The reason we're all talking to James Cameron today is because after 40 years of failing to enforce our environmental regime, we're at the point where the only way this government will act is to respond to public opinion and of course, Mr. Cameron has a huge influence over public opinion."
While speaking to reporters on his way to meet Stelmach at the legislature, Cameron was asked about reports that suggested he will provide financial or fundraising support to help the people of Fort Chipewyan sue the government.
"What I said was I was there to support whatever needs to be done if they choose to take legal action that's their right and I'm not going to encourage that one way or the other," Cameron said.
On Tuesday, Cameron, who was born in Kapuskasing, Ont., toured the oilsands and met with industry executives and First Nations leaders.
After meeting Cameron, the people of Fort Chipewyan said they feel they have a new ally in their fight to keep their lands and waters clean.
Cameron also met Wednesday with well-known University of Alberta water scientist, David Schindler. Last month, Schindler published a study linking oilsands development to toxins in the Athabasca River.
During a UN forum in New York earlier this year, Cameron called the oilsands a "black eye" on Canada's image as an environmental leader. His comments prompted Stelmach to invite the director to visit Alberta and see the oilsands for himself.