Comments follow Desmond Tutu’s speech
By Marty Klinkenberg
EDMONTON - A former oil company president and a former Alberta cabinet minister both say the fragile relationship between First Nations and government needs to be healed for Alberta’s oilsands region to prosper and sustain future development.
Jim Carter, a former boss of Syncrude, and Guy Boutilier, a former aboriginal affairs minister, urged more and better co-operation from industry and government at the conclusion of a weekend conference that brought human rights activist Desmond Tutu to the Alberta oilsands.
“This conference is an important first step, but as we go forward we need to have everyone at the table,” said Boutilier, now the deputy mayor of the regional municipality that includes Fort McMurray. “You can probably see who is not here. Before we can get anything done, we need to strengthen our relationships.
“I think we need to start again. I believe over the last several years the balance has been lost.”
Hundreds were drawn to the two-day gathering in Fort McMurray hosted by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Invitations were extended to Alberta Premier Dave Hancock and Conservative leadership candidate Jim Prentice, but neither attended. In town most of Saturday, Prentice stopped by an air show, went to an invitation-only gala to celebrate the opening of the new airport, and visited a fundraising event for a homeless shelter.
Boutilier challenged government and industry to formally meet with First Nations representatives in Fort McMurray to begin a more open dialogue in three or four months.
“Let us reconvene and have everyone at the table because we are all a family,” said Boutilier, who also once served as environment minister. “We need to do this for the future of our children.
“There is no reason we can’t be the environment capital as well as the energy capital.”
Carter, the president at Syncrude from 1997 to 2007, said that the oil company he headed learned early on that it could not take its relationship with First Nations for granted. Disagreements led to more understanding once hurt feelings were forgotten.
“There was a whole lot of relationship building that was a part of it,” he said. “We made a lot of mistakes along the way, but cultivating that relationship allowed us to move forward.
“We saw the First Nations as an untapped source of human capital and once given the opportunity, we found they shine,” he said.
Awarded the Nobel Prize for his fight against apartheid, Tutu delivered the conference’s opening address on Saturday, before a standing-room-only crowd at the First Nation’s new corporate headquarters. The event, which explored treaty rights and other issues, also included speeches by former Liberal leader Bob Rae, a senior partner with a law firm that works with First Nations across Canada; Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam; former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Ovide Mercredi; and University of Alberta professor emeritus David Schindler.
Describing degradation to the landscape in northern Alberta as “filth created by negligence and greed,” the South African archbishop urged all sides to work together to protect the environment and First Nations’ rights. “Do you want to live in a barren, cheerless, flowerless desert? You have a choice.”
A spiritual man who has lived a political lifestyle, Tutu was uncompromising in his reproach of the oilsands.
“It is not only devastating our shared planet, but strips away the rights of vulnerable citizens,” he said. “Who can stop this? You and I can.
“It is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so.
“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.”
The comments raised the hackles of industry representatives who pointed out that Tutu used aviation fuel to fly to Fort McMurray, as well as a rebuke from Alberta leadership candidate Ric McIver.
“For someone to roll in here who is famous and pass judgment in less than 72 hours, you realize you have to question the credibility,” McIver said.
Chief Adam, who introduced Tutu to the crowd on Saturday, was pleased with the event.
“We had to get prominent people to come to the conference to create awareness that government and industry can’t work in development without collaboration from the First Nations,” he said. “It goes to show how important it is that we be at the table.
“Something has to be done. We are at the brink of making it, and also breaking it.”
By Marty Klinkenberg, Edmonton Jour