Thomas Berger, whose inquiry gave northerners a voice, passes away

Thomas Berger at the 1987 Dene National Assembly
Thomas Berger at the 1987 Dene National Assembly. Rene Fumoleau/NWT Archives

Thomas Berger, whose Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry created a new standard of consultation involving Indigenous northerners, has passed away at the age of 88.

The inquiry’s hearings across Yukon and Northwest Territories communities produced more than 40,000 pages of documentation, at a time when such hearings rarely left the confines of southern cities. In an unprecedented step, Berger’s visits were broadcast in multiple languages.

The final report of what became known as the Berger Inquiry, published in 1977, declared a proposed gas pipeline’s route through parts of the Yukon and Mackenzie Valley was environmentally and socially unacceptable, and would deliver little if any economic gain to the residents of the North.

“There should be no pipeline across the Northern Yukon. It would entail irreparable environmental losses of national and international importance. And a Mackenzie Valley pipeline should be postponed for ten years,” Berger wrote in a letter to the minister of the time, Warren Allmand.

“If it were built now, it would bring limited economic benefits, its social impact would be devastating, and it would frustrate the goals of native claims.”

He told Allmand: “If you and your colleagues accept the recommendations I am making, we can build a Mackenzie Valley pipeline at a time of our own choosing, along a route of our own choice.

“With time, it may, after all, be possible to reconcile the urgent claims of northern native people with the future requirements of all Canadians for gas and oil.”

Berger made those recommendations after visiting all 35 communities along the Mackenzie River that would have been affected by such a project. No pipeline was built.

Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, said on Twitter “no non-Indigenous person has done more to advance the rights of Indigenous people in Canada and globally.” He called Berger “a giant in the law, an advocate without match” who “inspired thousands and enlightened millions.”

Berger’s inquiry was transformative to the extent that it is now part of the NWT’s Grade 10 curriculum.

For the first time, Indigenous and environmental groups received funding to give testimony at hearings in Yellowknife. The CBC broadcast daily reports in six languages.

In May 1977, at the inquiry’s conclusion and after three years touring the North, Berger told the CBC: “Once the inquiry got under way, it was apparent to all of us that we really had to go to all the communities in the Mackenzie Valley and the Western Arctic to hear what all the people had to say.

“It was worth doing. I’m not sure that I’d ever be able to do it again, but I wouldn’t have missed it this time.”

Berger said he was offered fish and game in every Dene community – an act that gradually opened his eyes to northerners’ needs and rights.

“It became apparent to me that some of the preconceptions I’d had about the North might be wrong,” he admitted. “To a much greater extent than any of us had thought, people still rely upon the land for the food they need. It is still a way of life.

“People have a special relationship with the land and they talked about that relationship in the most eloquent way. It wasn’t a nostalgic thing, it wasn’t a lament for a lost way of life. All the time I spent in the North gave me a real appreciation of the importance of the land, and life on the land.”

Berger ‘let people speak’

The Berger Inquiry’s findings were hailed by Indigenous groups and leaders not just in the North, but across Canada.

However, the inquiry had the more profound impact in the North of helping to establish a generation of northern leaders who had participated in hearings and become voices for their communities.

Stephen Kakfwi, a young Dene leader in the 1970s, referred to the years of the inquiry as “a magical time” when interviewed by the CBC 25 years later – by which time he had become the NWT’s premier.

“There was anger, there was a militancy there,” Kakfwi said. “It was a fundamental question: we’re a people, it’s our land, and we wanted somebody to acknowledge that.”

Former Dene national chief Bill Erasmus, who took part in the Berger Inquiry, said Berger “encouraged people to speak out and he listened.”

“It was an opportunity for people to talk about what was important to them,” said Erasmus, reached by phone on Wednesday evening. “At that time, many of our people were still relocating from the land into communities. That was a big opportunity and he influenced a lot of people and the way people think.”

More: Explore the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre’s Berger Inquiry collection

Erasmus remembered Berger as a quiet man, easy to talk to, who felt like “someone on our side.”

“The Elders really liked to talk to him because he wanted to listen and he encouraged people to speak in their own language,” Erasmus said.

“People had never heard from our Elders before in such a setting. I learned from him. Letting people speak is very, very powerful.”

‘A champion of Indigenous peoples’

Born in Victoria on March 23, 1933, Thomas Rodney Berger first gained recognition as an NDP politician and Vancouver lawyer in the 1960s.

Before embarking on the Berger Inquiry, he represented the Nisga’a Nation against the attorney general of British Columbia in a case that laid the foundation for an overhaul of Canada’s approach to land claim negotiations.

Beyond the inquiry, Berger served as a justice of the Supreme Court of BC and headed several other commissions. He received the Order of Canada in 1990.

BC Premier John Horgan confirmed Berger’s passing. Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould called him a “great champion of Indigenous peoples and rights.”

He was, she wrote, “a true trailblazer who helped change this country for the better while personally sacrificing to do so.”