First the Athabasca Chipewyan partnered with Canadian rocker Neil Young in a treaty-rights awareness tour.

Then, this past weekend, the 1,100-person northern Alberta First Nation – whose members feel its land and water are being sacrificed for an estimated $200-billion in oil-sands investment over the next decade – hosted renowned human-rights leader Desmond Tutu, who toured the oil-sands region and, at a weekend conference on treaty rights and the environment, called Canada’s bitumen production “filth.”

By the time the Nobel laureate left Fort McMurray on Sunday, his beyond-famous personality had brought international attention to the First Nation’s push for more environmental protections and negotiating power.

Other celebrity critics of the oil sands, including James Cameron, Daryl Hannah and Mr. Young, have visited Fort McMurray.

But, Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam said, while having a singer weigh in is one thing, bringing in the Nobel laureate who helped lead one of the world’s most important human-rights movements has brought “a credible stance” to the position that First Nations need to be a full partner – not just an afterthought – in decisions about dozens of current and upcoming oil sands projects in their traditional territory.

Mr. Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work in the battle against systemic South African racism, has called for apartheid-like boycotts and divestment against fossil fuel companies. He stands in solidarity with communities that oppose oil sands pipelines such as Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and Energy East, and in his keynote speech at the conference Saturday, said, “climate change is the moral struggle that will define this century.”

“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,” Mr. Tutu told an audience of about 200.

The relationship between First Nations and Big Oil is too complicated to reduce to a David-and-Goliath battle analogy.

The conference where Mr. Tutu spoke was at the sleek Fort McMurray headquarters for the Athabasca Chipewyan’s ACDEN group of companies, which Chief Adam said earns $270-million in annual revenues from industrial contracts with oil sands producers. He has also said the oil-sands industry helped lift his community out of poverty following the collapse of the fur trade. There’s a constant push and pull between the business interests of the community and the need to protect the traditional lands of the First Nation, which is based about 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray downstream from major oil sands operations.

“I have to balance everything out, in more ways than one,” Chief Adam said in an interview. “Sometimes I feel like I’m a hypocrite.”

Eriel Deranger, the young media co-ordinator and organizer for the First Nation, said aboriginal political resistance is growing, even in Alberta, where many people are more used to energy projects than in other provinces.

“We’re not saying shut everything down. We’re saying it’s time to stop what we’re doing and address the environmental damages that have already taken place,” she said.

In a statement released Saturday, TransCanada Corp. spokesman Davis Sheremata said Mr. Tutu is entitled to his opinion, but sources of energy, such as oil, have a positive impact on the daily lives of people around the world.

“Oil powered the jet that flew Mr. Tutu to Canada from Africa, produced the fuel for the helicopter tour he had planned of the oil sands, and helped manufacture the microphones and TV cameras for his press conference,” the release said. “Without oil we wouldn’t have fertilizers to grow our food, plastics for surgical tape and heart valves, and gasoline to start the more than 250 million cars in North America every morning.”

Mr. Tutu, 82, was a natural fit for the As Long As the Rivers Flow conference, sponsored by Toronto law firm Olthuis Kleer Townshend LLP, which specializes in First Nations law, and the Athabasca Chipewyan. The South African Archbishop said he was touched by the stories he heard from First Nations’ people about their loss of traditional territory and concerns about safe drinking water due to energy projects.

But, ever the peacemaker, an aerial tour appeared to soften Mr. Tutu’s tone: He said he learned at least some of the bitumen naturally seeps into water from the sand, and was impressed with what he heard from executive Mark Little of Suncor Energy Inc. – which paid for the helicopter flight – about the oil sands company’s investments in First Nations communities and renewable energy sources such as wind.

“No one wants to see an end to industry. If you have industry that is responsible, they have to be commended and encouraged,” he told reporters moments after stepping off the helicopter. “It’s not as if we go around saying, ‘to hell with them, whatever. Clobber them.’”

Former federal Liberal leader Bob Rae, who also spoke at the conference, said righting historic treaty wrongs is important for moving forward with energy projects. But, he said he disagreed with Mr. Tutu’s characterization of the oil sands.

“I don’t think the filth comment is very helpful because, I mean, oil and gas development is happening all over the world. It’s happening in Africa and elsewhere,” he said. “Everybody recognizes that there are environmental issues around the development of our resources. But I don’t think that [comment] really helps people to listen to each other.”

FORT MCMURRAY, ALTA. — The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jun. 01 2014, 10:48 PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jun. 02 2014, 6:46 AM EDT