Archbishop Desmond Tutu says there's an easy answer for why he stands in solidarity with communities opposed to oil sands pipelines such as Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, and why he has called for an apartheid-style boycott of fossil fuel producers.
"Because it's effective," the 82-year-old Nobel laureate told a small group of reporters assembled in a Fort McMurray meeting room on Friday, raising both arms, giving his trademark smile, and exclaiming "Yah!" for emphasis.
The energetic South African human rights activist, who has recently added climate change to his list of projects, travelled halfway around the world in part to punctuate his opposition to Alberta's oil sands and related projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline.
TransCanada Corp.'s proposed line would carry massive quantities of oil sands crude to U.S. Gulf Coast markets, while Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway would ferry bitumen to the B.C. coast for transport to Asia. On Saturday, Archbishop Tutu is to give the keynote speech at a Fort McMurray First Nations conference focused on treaty rights and the environment that is hosted by Toronto law firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which was beneficiary of singer Neil Young's Honour The Treaties tour earlier this year.
In recent months, the retired Anglican archbishop has penned a series of editorials focused on the threat of climate change and changes in the environment.
He has called on Canada to do its fair share to tackle the issue, saying Alberta's oil sands are "the world's dirtiest oil."
He wrote in a British newspaper that construction of the Keystone pipeline would significantly increase Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, despite the U.S. State Department's environmental assessment that found the pipeline would be unlikely to have an impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, and that the oil sands crude would be produced and get to market one way or another.
"Only those who don't want to listen, only those who want to be blind, can't see that we are sitting on a powder keg," Archbishop Tutu told the press conference in Fort McMurray.
"If we don't do something urgently, quickly, we won't have a world," he said, although he gave few new details regarding his calls for the boycotts, divestment and sanctions that he said should be used to reduce the oil industry's political clout.
Archbishop Tutu's remarks to reporters focused on the moral imperative to reduce greenhouse gases, and more generally how all of humanity must work together to solve its problems.
"I come hoping that I can be a catalyst. I don't come as a know-all who is going to pontificate and tell you Canadians what you must do," he said. "I can almost say without fear of contradiction that you do know what you should do."
Archbishop Tutu had been scheduled to take an aerial tour of the oil sands on Friday night but those plans were derailed by high winds.
A conference organizer said Archbishop Tutu was not meeting with any representatives from the oil sands industry.
Northern Alberta First Nations are more concerned about water pollution, destruction of animal habitat and oil sands industry encroachment on their traditional territories than the global problem of climate change. Still, Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam said Archbishop Tutu brings credibility to the treaty and environmental issues that his First Nation, located downstream from the most oil sands production north of Fort McMurray, has been trying to bring attention to for years.
Mr. Young's concert tour earlier this year helped to raise public awareness, and Archbishop Tutu's appearance will help even more, Chief Adam said, adding: "We've always been the underdog in regards to what's been going on in this region, even though this is our homeland."
Earlier in the week, Archbishop Tutu attended the international meeting of the Order of St. John in Toronto. At Friday's press conference, he said he was excited to be in the country known around the world for its First Nations communities – and for the RCMP. He said he grew up knowing about the Mounties and "that they always got their man.
So it's in a way great fun to be here and to see the places where they have been working."
Archbishop Tutu is known for speaking his mind on an array of issues, and often uses comparisons to apartheid-era South Africa in his arguments. More than a decade ago, his remarks that a visit to the Holy Land and the plight of Palestinians "reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa" put at him at odds with Israel and North American Jewish groups.
This year, he has been fierce of his condemnation of Uganda's anti-gay laws, recalling the days when South African police would rush into bedrooms where they suspected interracial sex had taken place.
"They would feel if the bed sheets were warm … it was demeaning to those whose 'crime' was to love each other, it was demeaning to the policemen – and it was a blot on our entire society."