FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu has called Alberta’s oilsands “filth” created by greed, and has urged all sides to work together to protect the environment and aboriginal rights.
“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,” Tutu told more than 200 rapt attendees at a conference on oilsands development and treaty rights in Fort McMurray on Saturday.
“The oilsands are emblematic of an era of high carbon and high-risk fuels that must end if we are committed to a safer climate.”
“Oilsands 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.”
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, co-sponsor of the conference, responded cautiously to Tutu’s uncompromising remarks.
“People have their own opinion,” said Adam, whose band does about $270 million worth of business with oilsands companies a year. “It is filthy, it is gut-wrenching to see the mass displacement of land to get at the resource.
“(But) we’re not anti-development. We want to do this right and there is an avenue to do this right.
“We’ll never get rid of the use of fossil fuels. Control the substances that are going into the Athabasca River — that’s what we’re really after. And let’s start cleaning up the mess.”
Tutu has criticized the oilsands before.
The archbishop, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, has taken strong stands on climate change and against projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline. Tutu has signed a petition against the project. In an opinion column earlier this year in the British newspaper the Guardian, the 82-year-old called the Keystone proposal to move oilsands bitumen from Alberta to the U.S. appalling.
He has also called for boycotts of events sponsored by the fossil fuel industry, for health warnings on oil company ads and for divestment of oil industry investments held by universities and municipalities, similar to measures that were brought against South Africa’s old apartheid regime.
Industry supporters have pointed out that the oilsands’ contribution to the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide produced globally in minuscule.
Davis Sheremata, a spokesman for TransCanada Corp., the company that wants to build Keystone, said in an email that shutting down the oilsands would have little impact on global warming. Meanwhile, he said oil and other fossil fuels have a positive impact and are the foundation for improving the lives of billions of people around the world.
“Oil powered the jet that flew Mr. Tutu to Canada from Africa, produced the fuel for the helicopter tour he had planned of the oil sands, and helped manufacture the microphones and TV cameras for his press conference,” Sheremata wrote.
“Without oil we wouldn’t have fertilizers to grow our food, plastics for surgical tape and heart valves, and gasoline to start the more than 250 million cars in North America every morning. Oil and petroleum products create literally thousands of items humanity relies on each and every day and could not do without,” he added.
Sheremata also noted that oil sands development is regulated by a democratically-elected government with some of the world’s strongest environmental regulations.
But Tutu argued that humanity must act together to end a threat that is already affecting people around the globe.
“This is why I have stood in solidarity with communities across Canada and the United States that are opposing the proposed oilsands pipeline,” he said. “The struggle of citizens against the pipelines puts them on the front lines of the most important struggles in North America today.”
Despite his rhetoric, Tutu urged people from all sides to work together. He pointed to the experience of his own country overcoming generations of racial intolerance as an example of how widely differing positions can be brought together through mutual good will.
“Magnanimity is not a river that flows in one direction only. It is a bridge built of reasonableness and the acceptance of others that enables human beings to navigate barriers that keep us apart.”
In a room tangy with the slight smell of sweetgrass, Tutu said humanity must learn to think of itself as one family.
“You can’t be human all by yourself. You need other human beings to be human.”
Tutu’s remarks, leavened by his trademark infectious laugh, ended with the crowd on its feet while he chanted, “we are connected.”
Adam said Tutu’s appearance will help his nation’s cause.
“It puts pressure on government to realize we’re getting world-renowned citizens coming together and speaking about the issue,” he said. “That has to be addressed in a way where First Nations people have to sit at the table make sure their positions get (heard).
“However (Tutu) does it and whatever he does, it’s a great feeling.”
Olthius Kleer Townshend, a Toronto law firm specializing in aboriginal law, is the other sponsor of the conference. It wraps up Sunday.