Joe Gunn

June 9, 2014

A bishop is making news – calling on Canadians to restore our moral standing in the global community. Are we listening?

Desmond Tutu is (Anglican) archbishop emeritus of Cape Town. A confidant of Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Tutu won the Noble Peace Prize in 1984. Tutu came to Alberta at the end of May – and his message was making waves.

Earlier in May my local paper carried a piece penned by the archbishop, in which he called climate change "the moral struggle that will define this time." Tutu argued that "just as Canadians reached out to help South Africans rid themselves of the scourge of apartheid" we can again work together.

But he railed against the current "reckless" policies of our federal government: "By putting oilsands development front and centre, Canada is turning its back on international cooperation to deal with climate change and contributing significantly to global climate devastation."

Why is a South African archbishop talking about Canada? As he looks at the world, Desmond Tutu sees the oilsands as "emblematic of an era of high-carbon and high-risk fuels that must end."

He notes that by 2050, 80 per cent of global energy supply could be from renewable resources – yet Canada's federal government continues to frenetically push oilsands expansion, the Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and Energy East pipelines, and is "stripping away the rights of First Nations and affected communities to protect their children, land and water from being poisoned."

Tutu saw for himself, traveling to Fort McMurray and speaking at the invitation of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation during a May 30-June 1 conference co-sponsored by the Olthuis Kleer Townsend law firm. (John Olthuis was a founder of Citizens for Public Justice, and another well-known partner in the firm is Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario and interim leader of the federal Liberal Party.)


In a May 23 article in the Globe and Mail, Olthuis and Rae argued that the federal government has been remiss in not negotiating with the First Nations as oilsands developments race ahead in their territories.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The available climate science indisputably backs up the archbishop's claims. Last April 13, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its concluding assessment that the planet's growth in emissions was fastest between 2000 and 2010.

The IPCC believes that it would still be possible to hold to the international community's two-degree Celsius warming target if we lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 per cent of 2010 levels by mid-century and almost totally eliminated emissions by the year 2100.

If Canada were to agree to achieve this, however, the majority of our fossil fuel reserves, especially unconventional sources, would have to stay in the ground.

In an April article in the UK Guardian, Tutu asked readers to move beyond individual measures, like not wasting energy, trading in our cars and buying bikes.

Rather, he said, "People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil fuel companies.

"We can demand that advertisements of energy companies carry health warnings. We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil fuel industry. We can organize car-free days and build broader societal awareness. We can ask our religious communities to speak out."


Some Canadian bishops have indeed spoken out. In January 2009 Bishop Luc Bouchard of St. Paul concluded that "the present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oilsands cannot be morally justified."

That April, Bishop Murray Chatlain of Mackenzie-Fort Smith joined "the call for the suspension of rapid growth of the tarsands in Alberta." These three bishops have laid out an important moral challenge for Canadians.

Many years ago I wrote a book review of Tutu's biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace. What impressed me most about was that he spent hours of his busy day in prayer, and that he tried to live out the traditional African spirit of ubuntu, the healing of breaches, the redressing of imbalances, the restoration of broken relationships.

I pray that we Canadians, especially Canadian Christians, are receptive to his message today.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)