Standing beside a crowd of "a few" aboriginal friends at Lake Athabasca in northern Alberta, Leonardo DiCaprio -- Hollywood’s leading star in the environmental movement -- threw down a challenge to the most powerful people in Canada’s oil sands development.
DiCaprio wants Stephen Harper and key captains of the oil sands industry to put ice on their heads.
“And I challenge Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada,” said DiCaprio in a Youtube video published Monday.
Ostensibly, the media stunt is an ALS challenge – a wildly successful viral-video social media campaign to get people to film themselves throwing ice on their heads, as a way to draw attention to the deadly neurodegenerative disease.
But to many, DiCaprio’s target is clearly the oil sands power brokers, over growing concerns of the industry’s environmental and health impacts.
“I think they’re highlighting the connection between the Canadian government and the oil industry here,” said Sierra Club Canada's John Bennett in Ottawa on Tuesday.
DiCaprio states in the video:
“I happen to be with a few friends in Alberta learning more about the Canadian Tar Sands, and it’s impact on our climate, the way they affect the land, water and health of the indigenous communities that live here.”
The Oscar-nominated star of Wolf of Wall Street has been in the Athabasca Chipawayan First Nation area recently for work on an upcoming enviro-documentary -- just the latest in several exploring the global warming crisis.
This new video also shows the Chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Allan Adam – a strident critic of oil sands’ health effects – challenging the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) to dump ice on his head too.
Likewise, another native leader vocal about pollution concerns -- Chief Steve Courtoreille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation - challenges the Executive VP of Suncor Canada, Mark Little to do the same.
Lastly, Sierra Club's U.S. executive director Michael Brunee also challenges the CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden.
No one from CAPP or Suncor has so far responded to requests for comment. Shell Canada's spokesperson said on behalf of his global CEO:
“It’s an honour to be challenged in such a string of high profile names," wrote Shell's David RJ Williams.
Classic case of 'news jacking'
Simon Fraser University social media instructor, Natasha Netschay Davies, said DiCaprio’s PR / digital media stunt was smart.
“This is an example of classic news jacking. It’s finding a way to link your message to a local news item.
“They are piggy backing on an important cause to get the message out about another important cause. It’s clever.”
DiCaprio's ability to bring attention to oil sands concerns is considerable: the icebucket video on his facebook page already has 200,000 likes, and 38,000 shares.
The risk though, said Netschay Davies, is that the video does not mention ALS much, and may offend those who want the focus on the disease. DiCaprio’s video does state that monies will be donated to the ALS Association.
A recent First Nations-commissioned oil sands health study in the area found 61 cases of neurological illnesses among Aboriginals downstream of tar sands pollution. None of the cases had ALS, stated the report.
DiCaprio is only the latest celebrity to visit the tar sands in recent times.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, rocker Neil Young, and Avatar movie director James Cameron, have also made high profile journeys to northern Alberta to explore the environmental concerns.
The oil sands are projected to double in size in a decade, according to CAPP.