Justice Thomas R. Berger, now 84 years-old (Edit: Yesterday, March 23rd, was his 85th birthday), is my hero. It was by mere chance that I came across his 1977 publication of Northern Frontier: Northern Homeland in 2016. I had been sitting on a milkcrate in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, learning to carve cedar with two native street-carvers that had recently become my friends. We had been talking of the North, mostly of their journeys hitchhiking from Vancouver to Yellowknife. The North, then, was a land of great mystery and intrigue. On this particular day, there was a large stack of discarded books beside the milkcrates of which we were sitting on in the Gastown street- front and centre of this stack stood a copy of Mr. Berger’s Pipeline Inquiry. Among the pages of this book were photos that spoke of great beauty in a great land, coupled with talk of Southern-driven pressure to refine and develop this land. I will not forget the feeling that struck me in looking through these images.
It can be said that small, seemingly insignificant events as such lay precursor to large change in one’s life. For me, Berger’s Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry was one.
Who is he, then?
Berger is best-known for his work as the Royal Commissioner of the 1974 Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry commissioned by the federal government. His published work- Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland- became the best-selling document ever published by the Canadian government. The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline, I should add, was a project proposed to transport liquified natural gas (LNG) from the Beaufort Sea through Canada’s Northwest Territories, later tying into gas pipelines in northern Alberta. For years leading up to the publication, Mr. Berger visited over 40 communities along the Mackenzie River, giving a voice to Native communities. Keep in mind, that these are a people whose voices had largely gone unheard; voices of a people whose existence has relied on the natural processes of the land itself; a people who have been, and continue to be, vulnerable to any and all land-based disturbance. The conclusions of this 1977 report strongly suggest that no pipeline be built until land claims had been settled. Following his recommendation, the Government of Canada rejected the pipeline proposal.
Berger’s more recent endeavours include representing First Nation and environmental groups against proposed modifications to the Yukon’s Peel River Watershed, a case was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada in March of 2017.
In August of 2017, Berger was in charge of leading the battle against the $7.4 billion Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which would twin an existing pipeline route from the Edmonton area to Burnaby, has already received approval from the National Energy Board — with 157 conditions — and approval from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet. This expansion would be led under the Canadian division of Texas-based Kinder Morgan, and, according to them, the expanded pipeline will increase capacity from 300,000 to 890,000 barrels of oil per day, allowing oil companies to gain access to growing markets in Asia and the U.S. This new pipeline would parallel the existing 1,150-kilometre pipeline route, carrying oil from near Edmonton to a terminal in Burnaby. From there, vessels would travel through Haro Strait near Washington state’s San Juan Island and on to the Pacific Ocean.
So, to you, Mr. Berger. Thank-you for the inspiration; for the pictures and words I first read on a milkcrate in the downtown street. For the pictures and words that so inspired me. Thank you, Mr. Berger, and happy birthday.