“As Long as the Rivers Flow: Coming Back to the Treaty Relationship in our Time”
I feel truly privileged to be here among you… for the opportunities to absorb some of your ancient knowledge and see first-hand some of the havoc being wrought on our shared earth in the quest to feed humanity’s insatiable thirst for fossil fuel.
Thank you. Thank you for inviting an old man from the other side of the earth to travel to your breathtakingly beautiful country. And, thank you for believing that what I have to say might have a little value; at home I must contend with the sign Mrs Tutu has erected on the mantelpiece proclaiming we are all entitled to our wrong opinions.
You and you, and you and you – and I – are kindred spirits in what has become a global struggle for justice and equity and human rights for all, especially for those who are most downtrodden and vulnerable.
I bring you greetings from Africa, the mother continent. Scientists tell us human beings originated in Africa and, from there, slowly fanned out across the globe. Over thousands of years we developed our different physical and physiological attributes, such as skin-tones and climatic tolerances, and our different cultures, economies and spiritual beliefs.
The first point I wish to make, therefore, is the obvious one: We are sisters and brothers and cousins of one family – God’s family. All of us, including indigenous people, the so-called First Nations, and those who are termed settlers, who are said to owe allegiance to the crown.
Even those who profit from the diabolical tar sands fields… whether they haven’t stopped to consider the cost of their actions, or they simply don’t care, they are our sisters and brothers, too.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Human beings were relatively settled in our different corners of the globe when, about 600 years ago, a handful of ambitious European nations with sophisticated weapons conceived and executed a programme to take control of most of the rest of the world’s nations and resources. They called it colonialism.
Through barter and bribery, trickery and treaty, they gained toeholds and then took over the land. In many countries, resistance by indigenous people to the loss of their land was met with merciless genocide.
Many of our first people were all but obliterated. In North America, in Australasia, in Africa…
Their spirit lives on in our hearts and in the blood in our veins… in my blood. Four years ago, when scientists drew my blood and sequenced my DNA I learned that, from my mother, I had inherited genetic material from South Africa’s First Nation, the San or Bushmen.
Not all material wrongs can ever be righted. Human beings have been nasty to each other for too long. Those nations that were not eradicated were cruelly subjugated, stripped of their resources and had their humanity totally undermined.
Our world today is characterised by vast chasms in living standards between the rich and poor, haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.
Where does one begin the task of reasonably compensating people for pain and suffering inflicted in the past? With our parent’s generation? With our grandparents? With our great-grandparents?
South Africa grappled with this question 20 years ago when we finally got rid of apartheid. One of the vital ingredients of our peaceful settlement was to find the means to deal with the demons of our past, and among the instruments established for this purpose were a Land Claims Commission and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The question facing both of these commissions was: Where do we begin? Do we begin with the beginning of colonialism in South Africa, in 1652, or the beginning of apartheid, in 1948? Ultimately, South Africa settled on 1913, which was the year the white government passed the Native Land Act, the piece of legislation that effectively stripped black South Africans of the right to own land.
Such legislated processes are critical, but even more important is people’s willingness, on the one hand, to acknowledge the damage they have done, and on the other, to forgive. The key ingredient that lays the basis for such human transactions is magnanimity.
This is the second point I hope to leave you with today. The ability to be magnanimous – to put ourselves in the shoes of others, not to gloat over perceived victories, to accept the humanity of others and the consequences of our actions on them, to be empathetic and open to forgiveness – is the key to our collective future on this planet.
If Nelson Mandela stunned the world when he walked free from prison after 27 years it was due to his almost other-worldly magnanimity. He set an example that many so-called ordinary folk who appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were to follow.
The willingness of people who had been brutally bashed down by a most callous system to understand and begin to forgive their oppressors was breathtaking.
One of my greatest disappointments at the time was that our white compatriots seemed slightly less willing than our black compatriots to be seen to be engaging the process. Not that they ignored it: Research at the time showed that an enormous number of citizens followed the proceedings from the privacy of their radios.
Magnanimity is not a river that flows in one direction, only. It is a bridge built of reasonableness and the acceptance of others that enables human beings to navigate barriers that keep us apart.
My preparation for this lecture took me:
• To a Government of Canada website stating that the treaties signed by the Crown and Aboriginal people a hundred and more years ago were regarded as “solemn agreements that set out promises, obligations and benefits for both parties”.
• Then I read Treaty 8, which guarantees basic rights such as health care and education, as well as the right to pursue traditional ways of living. According to thetreaty, its terms remain valid “as long as the sun shines, the grass grows, and the rivers flow”.
• And, finally, I came across a website displaying aerial photographs of the Alberta Oil Sands. The sun was shining – but there was no grass in sight and the contamination of the rivers was plain to see.
The development of the Oil Sands industry on hallowed land set aside for the people reflects an utter lack of magnanimity. The fact that this filth is being created now, when the link between carbon emissions and global warming is so obvious, reflects negligence and greed.
I have witnessed the vulnerability of some of the communities most affected by climate change. The urgency of our responsibility to take action has never been clearer. Every day hundreds of millions of lives and livelihoods are affected by global warming, a trend that will inevitably and dramatically reduce the quality of life for future generations.
This is why Ihave been outspoken in support of citizen-led strategies that will force governments and corporations to move away from our dependence upon fossil fuels and towards safer and cleaner energies that can protect people and our planet.
This is why Ihave stood in solidarity with communities across Canada and the United States that are opposing the proposed oil sands pipelines. The struggle of citizens against the pipelines puts them on the front lines of the most important struggles in North America today.
The oil sands are emblematic of an era of high carbon and high-risk fuels that must end if we are committed to a safer climate. Oil sands development not only devastates our shared climate, it is also stripping away the rights ofFirst Nations and affected communities to protect their children, land and water from being poisoned.
Who can stop this? We can – you and I can. And it is not just that we can stop it, we have a responsibility to do so.
Which is the third and final point I’d like to leave you with today…
Those countries and companies primarily responsible for emitting carbon and accelerating climate change are not simply going to give up on fossil fuels; they are too beholden to short-sighted profit.
We need to push them to do the right thing.
Just as Canadians reached out to help South Africans rid themselves of the scourge of apartheid, we can work together again to protect our shared planet from the worst of dangerous climate change.
Climate change is the moral struggle that will define this century and I hope dearly that youwill join the growing global movement that will find itself on the right side of history by saying no to the pipelines and to the filth they will carry.
In South Africa, we refer to the essence of being human as Ubuntu. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
We think of ourselves far too frequently as individuals, separated from one another. But we are connected, and what we do affects the whole world. When we do good, it fans out; it is for the whole of humanity.
God bless you.