Desmond Tutu visits Fort McMurray, Alberta for conference on climate change, First Nations

, Alta. — South African said he was visiting northern Alberta not as an expert on climate change, but hoping to bring people together on an issue crucial to the future of all creation.

“I don’t come as a know-all who is going to pontificate and tell you Canadians what you must do,” he told reporters Friday before opening a two-day conference on development and treaties in Fort McMurray.

“I think I can almost say, without fear of contradiction, that you do know what you should do.”

But he did not minimize his assessment of how serious a threat he said climate change poses. Effects are already being felt all over the world, he said, citing stories people have told him from Norway to Nigeria.

“We are sitting on a powder keg if we don’t do something urgently, quickly.”

RelatedKeystone XL pipeline opponents winning celebrity battle — but will it make a difference?Why the oil sands doomsday prophets have yet to strike a chord with the public

Archbishop Tutu suggested we all work together.

“It is better working together than being at loggerheads, at daggers drawn,” he said. “It is far better — it is cheaper — for people to be friends than enemies.”

He pointed to his own experience fighting the apartheid regime in South Africa as an example of how people can work out even the toughest problems.

“We could have had one awful conflagration,” he said. “It didn’t happen.”

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. Archbishop Tutu has signed a petition against the project.

There were no plans for him to meet with industry officials during his time in Fort McMurray.

Some in the oil sands capital seemed open to hearing what he had to say.

Syncrude employee Melvin Campbell said he felt Archbishop Tutu’s opinion carried more weight than that of others who had been critical of the industry.

“He has a little bit more credibility than the actors and the players,” said Mr. Campbell. “Desmond Tutu has a lot of political experience and the public’s ear. I hope he uses it well.”

Jason Franson/The Canadian PressJason Franson/The Canadian PressChief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Archbishop Desmond Tutu speak in Fort McMurray, Alta. on Friday May 30, 2014.

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

Oil worker Jay Hardy said Archbishop Tutu’s words should be heard.

“He has a good idea of the way that the world should be with the environment and with people living in it,” Mr. Hardy said. “I respect the man. I think we all should. He has good philosophy.”

Brigitte Mbanga said whatever Archbishop Tutu had to say was still only one man’s opinion.

“He is a more prominent person than the Hollywood celebrities that have come here,” she said. “His comments may be helpful to the government or the oil sands, but it’s like every other person’s comment.”

The conference is intended to discuss the need for renewal of treaty relationships in light of extensive resource development such as the oil sands.

It is 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. Mr. Rae is scheduled to be one of the speakers. So are former Northwest Territories premier Stephen Kakfwi and former Syncrude president James Carter.

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

The Canadian Press

About Bob Weber, Canadian Press