Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, captured headlines this past weekend with harsh and controversial criticism of the Alberta oil sands made while attending a May 31 to June 1 conference in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Media attention has focused most on his comment that “The fact that this filth is being created now, when the link between carbon emissions and global warming is so obvious, reflects negligence and greed.” It was part of Tutu’s keynote address at a two-day conference, organized by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and the law firm Olthuis Kleer Townsend, titled “As Long as the Rivers Flow: Coming Back to the Treaty Relationship in our Time.”
Tutu’s criticisms and call for action seemed to go further in some ways than the position discussed by Chief Allan Adam of the ACFN, who acknowledged that many people’s livelihoods depend on economic development related to the oil sands. “We don’t want to stop development. We don’t want to shut it down,” he told the crowd of about 200 people attending the conference.
“We would like the government of Alberta and Canada to impose the regulations that guide industry for what we call sustainable development and responsible development to occur in this region,” Adam said. “And somewhere down the line, they’ve forgotten that, and because of that, our way of life on the lakeshores of Lake Athabasca continuing all the way down the MacKenzie is threatened because we continue to survive and live off the land.” Some of the people attending the conference spoke of fears for their health and the lives of their children and grandchildren because of pollution, particularly of the water, from the oil sands.
Much of Tutu’s criticism was from a global perspective and was focused on the need to reduce carbon emissions to halt the effects of climate change. “I have witnessed the vulnerability of some of the communities most affected by climate change,” he said. “The urgency of our responsibility to take action has never been clearer. Every day, hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods are affected by global warming…,” he said. “That is why I have been outspoken in support of citizen-led strategies that will force governments and corporations to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels and towards safer and cleaner energies that can protect people and our planet. This is why I have stood in solidarity with communities across Canada and the United States that are opposing the proposed oil sands pipelines.”
The archbishop added that the countries and companies primarily responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change will have to be pushed to “do the right thing. Just as Canadians reached out to help South Africans rid themselves of the scourge of apartheid, we can work together again to protect our planet from the worst of dangerous climate change,” he said.
When a participant in the conference asked Tutu how to encourage leaders of fossil fuel companies to have the courage to transition to clean energy such as solar or wind, he answered that grassroots efforts from many would be required. “You are going to have to go onto the streets. You are going to have to have demonstrations-you know, the things that indicate that many are taking it seriously. Write letters to the press. Do all the things that we did against apartheid.”
When a participant asked about his council for the movement to divest funds away from the fossil fuel industry, he asked her, “Do you have a helmet?…Prepare yourself for a really rough ride,” he advised, saying that such efforts would meet powerful opposition. But he added, “Just go on persuading more and more people to join you-religious communities, different denominations. Do as they did in the Free South Africa movement, because we wouldn’t have made it without your help.” Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
Tutu has made strong critiques of the oil sands and pipeline projects in the past. Just prior to his visit to Fort McMurray, the Anglican Church of Canada outlined its position on the issue in a statement on its website, acknowledging both the importance of the industry to many people’s livelihoods as well as concerns for the environment and indigenous rights. The General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada issued a statement on “responsible resource extraction” with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada at their Joint Assembly in 2013, which affirmed that “responsible and sustainable relationships to water, land, home, and each other are part of realizing our full humanity.”
In his address, Tutu noted that “oil sands development not only devastates our shared climate, it is also stripping away the rights of First Nations and affected communities to protect their children, land and water from being poisoned.”
Tutu reminded the audience that people on all sides of the issue are allbrothers and sisters in God’s family. Recognizing ourinter-connectedness, along with being magnanimous and compassionate withone another, he said, are essential ingredients in bridge-building.
As the name of the conference indicated, much of the focus was on a call to governments in Canada to respect historic treaties signed with aboriginal peoples.
Chief Adam pointed out a fundamental difference in the way the treaties have been understood and implemented. Treaty 8, signed on the shores of Lake Athabasca in 1899, he said, was an agreement to share the land, not surrender it, he said. When Chief Alexander Laviolette signed, he was promising to share the land “to the depth of the plough, meaning that only six inches of the land that we share with the newcomers was to grow food, to farm and to harvest. The resources were never discussed and [the land] was never surrendered to anyone,” Adam said.
“This isn’t about ACFN. This is about all treaty-making people across this country,” Adam added.
John Olthius of Olthuis Kleer Townsend, which was hosting the event with ACNF, said, “We are all treaty partners, and that includes corporate citizens. Now is the time. First Nations peoples have been honouring these treaties for 250 years, and in the case of Treaty 8, for over 100 years. It’s time that the rest of us honoured the treaties.”