Oscar-winning actress Jane Fonda, who once visited Hanoi to protest the Vietnam War, was back in the spotlight Tuesday, only this time the setting was a snowy parking lot outside a Moxie’s restaurant in downtown Fort McMurray.
After a helicopter tour of Alberta’s oilsands region, the long-time activist met with Indigenous leaders and environmentalists.
An outspoken critic of the energy industry, Fonda told CBC News that during the flyover she felt a physical reaction while gazing at the massive open-pit bitumen mines that fuel the oilsands industry and pump billions of dollars each year into the Alberta economy.
“It’s like someone took my skin and peeled it off my body over a very large surface,” Fonda said after she had lunch with members of the Fort McMurray First Nation. “It made my body ache to watch it.”
The flyover, Fonda said, gave her a “macro” view of the industry, while the lunch with Indigenous people gave her insights into the impact that oilsands developments have on air and water in the region.
In the parking lot outside the restaurant, Fonda stopped briefly to speak with a CBC videojournalist. But the interview was quickly interrupted by Robbie Picard, founder of a local advocacy group called OilSands Strong.
Armed with an iPhone to record the event, Picard asked the 79-year-old actress and activist if she was aware that First Nations businesses in the region have invested many millions of their own dollars in the oilsands.
But Picard was quickly shut down by people travelling with Fonda, who said they did not have time to address his questions.
Moments later, the Fonda entourage was confronted by another local resident, Susan Plamondon.
“Did you fly over the reclamation area?” Plamondon shouted at Fonda.
The two walked toward each other, and at one point Fonda reached out and gently grasped the other woman’s hands.
“Listen, I’m not against you,” the actress said.
“Well, I sure hope that your report on Fort McMurray is a pleasant one, and not just bashing us. We are hurting here,” Plamondon said.
She reminded the celebrity guest that 2,500 people lost their homes in May 2016, when a massive wildfire forced about 90,000 residents to leave the city and surrounding communities.
“Did you sleep in a hotel?” Plamondon asked.
“Yes, I did,” Fonda said. “And I flew in an airplane here. And I understand what you’re saying.”
Greenpeace Canada is holding an event at the University of Alberta in Edmonton on Wednesday night, where Fonda is scheduled to be one of several speakers.
‘It’s a part of global warming’
While handlers tried to hurry Fonda on her way, the actress took time to respond to criticism that her trip was ill-timed, coming eight months after a wildfire decimated thousands of homes and businesses in Fort McMurray.
A pro-oilsands group said Monday that Fonda’s visit was akin to “kicking (Fort McMurray) while we are down.” The group, Oilsands Strong, slammed the actress for visiting when the community was rebuilding and thousands are still unemployed after oil prices hit record lows.
“No, it’s exactly the time,” Fonda said, when asked about the timing. “In California, we are seeing flooding. We are seeing fires that are burning up whole communities.
“We watched Fort McMurray burn, and it was so painful for us. But it’s a part of global warming.”
Fonda has been politically outspoken since the 1960s, when she campaigned for civil rights, opposed the Vietnam War and supported the occupation of Alcatraz Island by native Americans.
In 1972, she made an infamous visit to the capital of North Vietnam, to see firsthand the damage done by American bombers. The trip earned her the derisive nickname “Hanoi Jane.”
During Tuesday’s visit to northern Alberta, Fonda argued it was important to talk about the reasons such natural disasters happen.
“We come here with tremendous open hearts and compassion,” Fonda said, “for what people have gone through here.”
During a portion of the interview, Fonda stood with her hand on the shoulder of Cleo Desjarlais Reece, a member of the Fort McMurray First Nation.
The two had lunch together, and Desjarlais Reece said they talked about the greed of corporations that place profits above the health of people and the environment.
Reece, also a member of anti-oilsands group Keepers of the Athabasca Watershed Council, defended Fonda’s visit. She said she disagreed with those who say celebrity tours are merely circuses that distract from important issues.
“We do not control the media, obviously,” she said. “Anytime [we get] a chance to give our side of the story and tell our truth, I think that is very important for us.
The voices of Indigenous groups, Desjarlais Reece said, are often heard only when celebrities show up.