Thomas Berger, a former justice who headed the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in the 1970s, died Wednesday at the age of 88.
Between 1974 and 1977, Berger headed the royal commission called the Berger Inquiry to examine the impacts of a pipeline which would bring natural gas from the Alaskan Arctic coast through the Yukon and the Northwest Territories to American markets.
Berger’s study sought input from Indigenous communities, which took him to nearly 50 Northern communities that included bush camps and on-the-land camps, to get feedback on the potential social and economic impacts of the development.
In his 1977 final report, he called for a 10-year moratorium to be put in place on the project and a wildlife preserve established.
The report was seen as a major victory for environmental rights advocates and Northern Indigenous people, who provided an unprecedented level of input into an industrial project of that scale on their own homeland.
But Berger concluded that large-scale industrial development would exacerbate problems among Indigenous people and would cause added harm to their traditional economies, values and self-respect.
“The evidence is clear: the more the industrial frontier displaces the homeland in the North, the greater the incidence of social pathology will be,” he concluded.
Georges Erasmus, head of the Indian Brotherhood at the time, told News of the North that Berger’s findings were seen as win for Dene.
“Berger has recognized the Dene Nation and the right to self-determination in our Dene homeland. We could never survive if a pipeline was built right now. This is indeed a time for us to celebrate,” said Erasmus.
Berger was widely celebrated following the report, including with the awarding of the Order of Canada in 1989.
In an anniversary gathering in 2015 to mark the 40th anniversary of the inquiry, Berger spoke to a packed house at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre’s auditorium, to much fanfare.
“It was a marvellous experience,” he told the crowd, recounting his trips to hunting camps, fishing camps and seeing the Porcupine Caribou herd. “It was an experience that perhaps no Canadian had ever enjoyed.”
Whit Fraser, who was at the CBC in Yellowknife from 1967 to 1978, wrote the 2018 book True North Rising, which told of his eye-witness experience following the inquiry.
He said Berger should be remembered as a builder of a country where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people better understood each other – a far greater accomplishment than preventing an industrial project.
“I thought about it this morning and tried to put a book in two sentences and I came up with this: that no matter what, he didn’t stop a pipeline,” Fraser said. “He was a builder and helped build a far better North with stronger and more independent peoples … it was more about the country itself and the legacy.”
Patrick Scott, who was a CBC cameraman during the inquiry, said Berger was exemplary from beginning to end.
“His title at the time was Justice Tom Berger and he personified that concept and that continued through his entire career,” Scott said. “He was an incredibly wise man and very seldom were there people as wise as him.”
Awakening ‘a sleeping giant’
The Dene Nation issued a news release on April 29 recognizing Berger’s legal work starting in the 1960s and 1970s that championed Aboriginal rights and title within Canadian law.
“It was the first time we heard the news being broadcast in our languages,” said Dene National Chief Norman
Yakeleya. “Through his work, he awakened the sleeping giant of the Dene’s soul – we felt the power of recognition in our existence throughout Canada and the power to challenge industry throughout our traditional territory.”
The Dene Nation stated that Berger’s inquiry not only highlighted the unresolved land claims and the need for
wildlife protection, but reshaped the relationship between the Dene, the Government of Canada and Canadians.
“His actions were the embodiment of reconciliation before Canadians knew that was the just path to take, in
order to begin to right the wrongs of Canada’s colonial roots,” Yakeleya said.
Several messages of condolences were shared on social media on Wednesday evening, including from Jody Wilson-Raybould, MP for Vancouver Granville.
“Tom was a great champion of a Indigenous peoples and rights… A true trail-blazer who helped change this country for the better while personally sacrificing to do so,” she wrote.
Others included Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations.
“No non-Indigenous person has done more to advance the rights of Indigenous people in Canada and globally,” Rae stated. “A giant in the law, an advocate without match. He inspired thousands and enlightened millions.”