Celebrities in the oilsands: The visits continue but do they have an impact?

Jane Fonda brought some star-tinged drama in her trip to Alberta that ended with her trip organizers and the government each claiming the other side skipped meetings arranged to discuss the state of Alberta's oilsands. Was dialogue ever the point?

Famous critics grab the attention of the public, but can they change people's minds?

Actor Jane Fonda toured Alberta's oilsands operations, prompting reaction from Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. (CBC)

Jane Fonda's visit to Alberta this week added some celebrity glitz to important and ongoing discussions about Alberta's environmental record and commitments.

She also brought some drama that culminated with her trip organizers and the government each claiming the other side had skipped meetings arranged to discuss the state of Alberta's oilsands.
Actress Jane Fonda, right, flew over Alberta's oilsands region Tuesday with Canadian actress Barbara Williams, later meeting with Indigenous groups and environmentalists. (Greenpeace)

"We had our deputy minister cued up to meet with [Fonda] to talk about the elements of our [climate change] plan," Premier Rachel Notley said on Thursday. "About how they compare to what she's used to seeing in California, to talk about the progress we're making.

"She failed to understand that, because she didn't get the briefing — because she didn't show up."

A meeting between Fonda and top representatives from the government's climate change office had been arranged for a restaurant in Fort McMurray. But Fonda was a no-show.

Greenpeace spokesperson Mike Hudema, whose group helped arrange Fonda's visit, said some members of her delegation did attend the restaurant meeting. But Fonda was running late and offered to meet the government crew at the local conference centre.

Then, he said, those government officials didn't show.

"They said yes, and said they would head over, and we were waiting for that meeting and the officials never showed up."

Ongoing oilsands PR battle

That little tit-for-tat spat is a side story to the larger, ongoing public relations battle being waged over Alberta's oilsands. But it did raise, or restate, some key questions.

Were the two sides really interested in talking (or listening) to each other? Is it possible to bridge the philosophical divide — between Fonda and the Alberta government, or among members of the general public — when the stakes seem to constantly pit the economy against the environment?

Fonda labelled as "little piddling things" efforts such as Alberta's climate change plan, which includes the phase-out of coal-fired electricity generation, a cap on oilsands emissions, and a carbon tax.

"At least they're trying to turn some things back to what they were, part way," the actress said. 

"(But) if you put together all these little things that they're doing, it doesn't add up to much in the face to what new drilling and extraction of the tar sands, or the North Dakota pipeline, or any of the new infrastructure that's being planned here and in the United States would do in terms of emissions."

The Alberta government believes its Climate Leadership Plan will not only lower emissions but help spur the development of a renewable energy economy.

"You don't magically switch off one industry and create 200,000, 300,000 or 600,000 jobs overnight," Notley told CBC's Edmonton AM radio show. "And anyone who thinks you do is frankly not someone who spends a lot of time with people whose jobs have disappeared.

"It's a process. And the oil and gas industry is making tremendous investments in reducing their emissions … they need to be given credit for that because it's hard work. Her comments simply negate that."

During her Alberta visit, Fonda appeared alongside Indigenous leaders, including Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. She spoke passionately about the health impacts of oilsands development on Indigenous people's lives.

"I've talked to a lot of Indigenous people who can no longer drink water, they have to have it delivered to them in bottles," Fonda said. "They've seen cancer rampant, they've seen the animals that they depend on full of tumours, they can't eat the fish out of the rivers anymore, the river water is dropping."

Celebrity effects

Fonda's flyover of Alberta's oilsands operations on Tuesday follows similar trips, and similar comments, made by Neil Young and Leonardo DiCaprio. While celebrity names are sure to create a local media frenzy, do they have wider-reaching effect?

"Celebrities absolutely can have an impact on policy discussions," said Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?: When Celebrity Culture and Science Clash.

"They can raise awareness and drive discussion, they can help raise money, and that's often the way they're used in the context of political campaigns, even if they're not changing minds."
Neil Young was in Winnipeg in 2014 during a tour raising money to fight oilsands development in Alberta. A group of prominent Canadians penned a letter of support for Young's anti-oilsands campaign. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Celebrity impact on policy issues is harder to pin down, he said.

"They can be a polarizer. If you agree environmental change is a big issue and you relate to Jane Fonda, she will amplify your views on that matter. But if you think this is all political nonsense and you don't relate to Jane Fonda, her presence can make it worse, and polarize it."

Caulfield said Fonda's comments on the health impacts of the oilsands have to be read in the context of the available science — which, in this case, often ends in disputes over the veracity of data and the intention of research.

Caulfield has also written that the scientific community needs to embrace the idea of bringing celebrity attention to issues that would them help put out their message, be it social media or opinion articles or at their own news conferences.

It seems certain that Fonda's trip won't be the last such visit to Alberta.

Asked how her government will handle the next celebrity who comes to town, the premier said: "Quite frankly, people who are experts in this area, who are keen to see progress on climate change policy across the world, know that Alberta has engaged in some game changing initiatives over the last two years.

"If people come here, we'll take every opportunity to talk to them about that. But we're also out ourselves, talking about what we've done. And we know that people see the difference."