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Q and A with Thomas Berger

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (June 24/02) - When former British Columbia Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger unveiled his report on the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in May 1977, its findings opened the eyes of a nation toward the aspirations of aboriginal people in the North.

He was in Yellowknife last week to attend The Living History Symposium -- a "family reunion" he called it.

NNSL Photo

Thomas Berger has long been recognized as a driving force behind the North's developing relationship with the federal government. He headed the famous inquiries into the Mackenzie Valley pipeline during the mid-1970s. - Robert Dall/NNSL photo

N/N: In your opinion, how has the North changed since you headed the inquiry into the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in 1976?

Thomas Berger: Well, Yellowknife is a lot bigger. The native people obviously play a much bigger part in government and business of the Northwest Territories. The idea in planning a major pipeline, and environmental values, and rights of the Dene and Inuvialuit have to be taken into account, have been firmly planted, so those are pretty big changes, I think.

N/N: The political apparatus of the NWT has indeed changed quite a bit. A lot of the members that represented the Indian Brotherhood in those days are now in government or in recent governments passed. They are much more keen toward development today.

TB: Yes, when I wrote my report 25 years ago, I recommended that there be no pipeline in the Mackenzie Valley for 10 years in order to settle land claims.

It's been 25 years and they have largely been settled, and now native people can become players in a pipeline if one is going to go ahead. They can have an ownership interest with the appropriate skills. They can be wage earners in construction. I should think maintenance of a pipeline as well, and they may, as consumers, profit from cheap gas.

So, it seems to me that the environment has changed. I concluded my report by saying if we did all of these things then we could build a Mackenzie Valley pipeline at a time of our choosing, along a route of our choosing, and in a way that would bring real benefits to everybody in the North. Now, we'll see how it all unfolds. But I'm not surprised land claims haven't been settled.

People like Steve Kakfwi and Jim Antoine, and others ... there were a lot of young chiefs who spoke against it (Mackenzie Valley pipeline) 25 years ago, but are now prepared to go along with it, and indeed think it could be very useful to native peoples.

N/N: Do you think the pain people were expressing at the time, the pain of having their cultures disturbed by the intrusion of outsiders, is still with us today?

TB: Look, major development brings change in its wake, there's no doubt about that. When I wrote my report, I wrote it in two volumes. The first volume contained the two main recommendations: Don't ever build a pipeline across the northern Yukon. We have to preserve the North slope of the Yukon. It's the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. We must turn that into a national park. The second recommendation was you can build a pipeline along the Mackenzie Valley to bring Delta and Beaufort Sea gas to market, and you can do it if you take appropriate environmental safeguards. But don't do it for 10 years until you've sat down with native people and settle their claims.

I wrote a second volume that came out six months later. Nobody read it, but in it, I said when you build a pipeline, here are the terms and conditions you should impose to ensure that you protect the environment, to ensure that native people are trained to work on skilled jobs on the pipeline, to ensure that there are lasting benefits to the North.

That's still out there. It's 25 years old and needs to be updated, but it was always my assumption that someday there would be a Mackenzie Valley pipeline. There would be a settlement of land claims in the Mackenzie Valley. When that occurred, the pipeline could go ahead.

People evolve, they grow, and governments have sat down with them and have settled their claims. I know they're not all fully settled. I don't pretend to understand the details, but they're obviously on the road to settlement. It's up to them and the people of the Northwest Territories. I gave them advice 25 years ago, and that's the best I can do. I don't have any more advice to offer.

N/N: How closely have you been following events in the NWT since you headed the inquiry?

TB: I've been back to the North every few years, and I still have friends here that we stay in touch with, and of course, we read about it in the business section of the Globe and Mail. We're always reading about the latest twists and turns of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. There are alarms and excursions all the time, and that's not surprising because everybody jockeys for position. It's kind of interesting to watch.

N/N: What are your thoughts on the identity of the Northwest Territories? A lot of people here feel we are sort of stuck in the middle, between the limelight of Nunavut becoming its own territory and the Yukon's high international profile.

TB: (Laughter) I think you're the unsung heroes, in that it was here in the valley and the Western Arctic that the Dene and the Inuvialuit during my inquiry who spoke up and spoke out, and caught the attention of the nation, and really put land claims on the map, not just here but all over the country. I think now that the last piece of the NWT has been carved out, Nunavut being the last chunk ...

N/N: Who's to say that the NWT will not be carved up even more?

TB: (More laughter) I know, but there is a kind of logic to the present geographical boundaries of the NWT. You got the Mackenzie Valley linking the whole territory now, and the Inuvialuit decided their future is linked to the Delta, and the peoples of the NWT.

I think this (True North) conference illustrates how the unfolding of governmental arrangements between aboriginal peoples and non-aboriginal peoples can work together, govern themselves together. I think it's going to provide some valuable lessons to the rest of Canada.

N/N: What do you think you will take away from this conference?

TB: Monday night was really like a family reunion, and everybody said so many kind things about the Berger Inquiry that I said to my wife, "I'm supposed to speak tomorrow but maybe we should just go home tonight because I can never live up to what these people said about me."

Look, for me to be invited back after 25 years, and have all these folks telling about how the inquiry affected the lives of people here, the devolution of the NWT is really very gratifying. I mean, there aren't that many things you do in life where you recommend the establishment of a wilderness park, and it happens. You recommend over a river valley 900 miles long, land claims should be settled, and it happens, and you say look, when you do build a pipeline here is the way everyone could benefit, and now everyone seems to be working towards that goal.

In a long life, it's not often that everything works out that well.

The idea that the inquiry would go into communities where people lived and listen to them has caught on. I went to Alaska to head the Alaskan Native Review Commission from 1983 to 1985. They thought the model we had established in the Mackenzie Valley was the one to follow, and I went to India for the World Bank in 1991-92, and certainly the people in India who were concerned about this gigantic dam and canal that was going to displace 250,000 people, they wanted us to follow the idea of community hearings. Some people in India had copies of Northern Frontier/Northern Homeland, which is astonishing.

N/N: It seems everyone in Canada with a humanities degree knows who you are. Do you still intend to stay in public life?

TB: Well, the inquiry made me famous in Canada for a while, and I'm still asked to go here and there to talk about the inquiry. I don't often go, because I have other things to do. I'm still a lawyer in Vancouver, and I don't want anyone to think that I am an expert on what's happening in the NWT today.

So, I avoid anything that might lead anyone to think that I have expertise to offer today, but sure, I'm still around.