Desmond Tutu urges Canada to address climate change 'powderkeg'

Canada must consider how Alberta’s oilsands contribute to global climate change and make moves to cut its carbon emissions before it's too late, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu told reporters in Fort McMurray.

South African archbishop's tour of oilsands development cancelled due to weather

Desmond Tutu discusses aboriginal treaties: RAW

9 years ago
Duration 23:05
The retired South African archbishop discusses aboriginal treaties and oilsands development in Fort McMurray

Canada must consider how Alberta’s oilsands contribute to global climate change and make moves to cut its carbon emissions before it's too late, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu told reporters in Fort McMurray.

“Only those who don’t want to listen, only those who want to be blind can’t see that we are sitting on a powderkeg,” he said Friday.

“If we don’t do something urgently, quickly, we won’t have a world.”

Tutu is in the northern Alberta city for a two-day conference on oilsands development and aboriginal treaties, was hosted by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

He was scheduled to take an aerial tour of the oilsands today, but it was cancelled at the last minute due to weather. He will give the keynote address at the conference Saturday. 

The archbishop said he did not come to the conference intending to “tell Canadians what you must do.” He said he hoped that his presence at the event would be a catalyst and that he could use his experience to help local First Nations, industry leaders and others find common ground to come to an agreement.

“Ultimately, it is far better, it is cheaper, for people to be friends than for people to be enemies. “

Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the fight against apartheid, said that he has talked to people in Africa, northern Europe and other parts of the globe who have suffered from the effects of climate change. He added that Canada might not feel the same effects, but that the country’s leaders cannot ignore the problem.

“The time spent is growing shorter by the day. We can still perhaps do something about reversing what we have done so recklessly.”

Athabasca Chipewyan chief Allan Adam, who joined Tutu at the press conference, called for a halt to further oilsands development and stronger regulations until concerns over current environmental damage have been addressed.

“We are contributing to what is happening worldwide, regardless if it is a small footprint or not. We are feeling it at home,” Adam said.

Listen as CBC's Briar Stewart describes the impact of Tutu's visit on Fort McMurray

Long-time environmental proponent

Tutu has taken strong stands on climate change and against projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline. 

In an opinion column earlier this month in the British newspaper the Guardian, the 82-year-old called the Keystone pipeline proposal to move oilsands bitumen from Alberta to the U.S. appalling. 

Tutu has signed a petition against the pipeline. He has 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. 

When asked Friday why he had focused his efforts on the boycotts, he told reporters "because it is effective."

Tutu has suggested the Keystone XL pipeline could increase Canada's carbon emissions by 30 per cent. 

Changing treaty relationships

The title of the conference is As Long As the Rivers Flow: Coming Back to the Treaty Relationship In Our Time. It's intended to discuss the need for renewal of treaty relationships in light of extensive resource development such as the oilsands. 

Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu arrives at the Fort McMurray airport on Thursday afternoon. (CBC)

It's co-sponsored by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Toronto law firm Olthuis Kleer Townsend, in which former Ontario premier and one-time federal Liberal leader Bob Rae is a partner. Rae is scheduled to be one of the speakers at the conference. So are former Northwest Territories premier Stephen Kakfwi and former Syncrude Canada president James Carter. 

Representatives from the Alberta and federal government are not expected to attend although they were invited, said conference spokeswoman Eriel Deranger. 

Tutu is the latest high-profile critic to visit the oilsands city. 

Earlier this year, musician Neil Young played concerts in several cities to support the Athabasca Chipewyan after he visited the region. In 2010, Hollywood director James Cameron toured the oilsands and the community of Fort Chipewyan.