Four decades ago, the NWT was in political upheaval. A new generation of aboriginal leaders was changing the territory’s political landscape, while at the same time a consortium of major oil companies was planning to run a massive pipeline from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, across the Yukon to the Mackenzie Delta and down the valley to Alberta.
In 1974, Justice Tom Berger, a B.C. Supreme Court judge at the time, stepped into this volatile mix to head what became the famous Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. After travelling to more than 30 communities across the territory, Berger made the historic decision to suggest a 10-year moratorium on the Mackenzie Valley arm of the project – until land claims were settled and environmental protections were in place – and a complete halt to any pipeline building across the northern Yukon.
Berger will be in Yellowknife tomorrow to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the inquiry, which officially began March 3rd, 1975. He’ll be speaking at 7:00 p.m. in the auditorium of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, which is currently hosting an exhibit on the inquiry, Thunder in Our Voices.
We reached Berger at his Vancouver office and asked him to share some memories of the inquiry and his thoughts on its legacy, 40 years on.
Can you remind us what your task was when you came North in 1975?
It was the experience of lifetime. I had never been to the Arctic or subarctic regions of Canada. I actually came up in 1974 on an informal basis. We had preliminary hearings at Yellowknife, Inuvik and Whitehorse. My object was to say to northerners, aboriginal and non-aboriginal: ‘Tell me, how do you think I should go about this task?’
I had already received a great deal of material from Arctic Gas, the consortium that proposed to build the pipeline, and it seemed I should hear what local people wanted to say about all of this.
We started the formal hearing March 3rd 1975, 40 years ago. I held formal hearings in Yellowknife, where 300 experts of one kind or another testified, but I also held community hearings where I heard from about 1,000 people, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, but predominantly aboriginal. I went by air, and visited every town and village in the Mackenzie Valley and the Western Arctic. At each place I said, ‘I will stay here as long as it takes for anyone to speak who wants to do so.’
Were you warmly welcomed in the communities?
Yes, people were glad to see me. The pipeline would bring a population of construction workers and pipeline tradesmen to the valley. Land claims had not been settled, so people were very concerned about hunting, fishing, and trapping, preserving the things they had depended upon for a very long time. They were also concerned about the social and economic impacts on their villages, and they were concerned that if the pipeline went ahead they wouldn’t actually get any jobs out of it. Everyone wanted to speak. And I wanted to learn.
I think this was the first time anyone had come into their villages and didn’t leave the same day with the engine still running on their seaplane. In some of those places I stayed for two or three days, in some places as long as five days.
Those community hearings were an innovation; I don’t think anything quite like that had been done before. I don’t take any credit for that because the people in the villages suggested I come hold hearings there so they could be heard.
Where did you hold the hearings?
I held them in community halls and I held some of them outdoors in the good weather. Nahanni Butte, I remember that was outdoors. Because I remained for a few days in each community, I suppose I became part of the landscape, eating with the local folks and listening to them informally, but I would always say to them: ‘Look, if that’s the way you feel, I think you should speak at the hearing, because then your testimony will be taken down and there will be a record of it.’
In some of the villages when we were there in summer, the hearing would go until midnight, then we would have a softball game. I remember in Fort McPherson I hit a home run. But I think the local chief had told the pitcher to give me a break.