Natives Speak Out
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Native people air long-held grievances at the Berger Commission
During the 1970s, a highly unusual government inquiry became a rallying point for aboriginal issues in Canada and provided a rare opportunity for natives to air long-held grievances.
In 1974, Judge Thomas Berger was appointed to head the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry into the social, environmental and economic impact of a proposed pipeline in the Northwest Territories.
In 1974, Judge Thomas Berger was appointed to head the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry into the social, environmental and economic impact of a proposed pipeline in the Northwest Territories.

A worldwide oil crisis and subsequent plans by oil companies to build a pipeline through the western Arctic prompted Ottawa to establish the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. The pipeline would carry oil and gas from the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska south through the Mackenzie River Valley to the United States.

In an unusual move, the federal government decided to consult area natives, the Dene and Inuit, about the pipeline plan. At the time, the minority Liberal government depended on support from the New Democratic Party (NDP) in Parliament; and the NDP was a strong advocate of native rights.

The inquiry also coincided with an era of rising native activism. Just five years earlier, in 1969, the federal government had unwittingly triggered a political landmine when it proposed, and later withdrew, a plan for native assimilation including the abolition of treaty rights and native reserves.

The Dene were so concerned about the impact of a pipeline on their way of life they had already challenged the move in the courts. Their request for a caveat was turned down, but Justice Morrow suggested they may have a legitimate case to make.

In 1974, Judge Thomas Berger was appointed to head the Inquiry into the social, environmental and economic impact of the proposed pipeline. A year earlier, Berger had represented the Nisga'a natives of British Columbia in the landmark Calder Case, which opened the door for all native land claim negotiations with Ottawa.

The expectation was that the Inquiry, also called the Berger Commission, would follow the formula of many royal commissions and result in a dull, plodding, extended investigation that would demonstrate political concern but yield negligible results.

Instead, Berger held meetings in 35 northern communities, as well as several southern cities, throughout 1976. The meetings received widespread media coverage. For many Canadians, watching the Berger Commission was the first time they heard native concerns voiced by the people themselves.

At times the testimony was dramatic.

Bob Blair, a prominent Calgary oilman whose company had applied for pipeline rights as a part of a consortium, attended the hearings. In Fort Good Hope, he was singled out by Chief Frank T'Seleie. He accused Blair of plotting genocide.

"You are like the Pentagon, Mr. Blair, planning the slaughter of the innocent Vietnamese," TSeleie charged. "Dont tell me you are not responsible. You are the twentieth-century General Custer. You are coming with your troops to slaughter us and steal land that is rightfully ours. You are coming to destroy a people that have a history of thirty thousand years. Why? For twenty years of gas? Are you really that insane?"

Clearly shaken by what hed heard, Bob Blair responded: "Please let me explain. We do not choose to put the pipeline through a place if the landowners are strongly opposed or are arguing claims. We will wait for land claims to be settled and we have the time to do that."

The chiefs of the seven tribes of the Dene had recently signed the Dene Declaration, a historic and controversial document that declared they were a nation and asked for recognition by the world community.

George Erasmus, was one of the most influential young leaders in the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories which, after the Dene Declaration was renamed The Dene Nation. In a firm and certain tone, Erasmus told Judge Berger that the Dene people wanted to control their own lives and the land they lived on.

"We were simply stating the same position that our people have always had. Our people have never given up the right to govern themselves. Our people have never given up the right to this land, " said Erasmus, who would eventually become head of the Assembly of First Nations

In May 1976, a tragic event underlined the importance of the Inquiry. Nelson Small Legs, Jr. committed suicide two days after testifying, leaving a public suicide note that condemned the treatment of natives in Canada.

In 1977, Judge Bergers final report appeared. Its strong position was that the north was a native homeland and not simply a frontier resource for the federal government.

"It is my conviction that the social impact on the native people will be devastating. I think the economic benefits, to northerners generally, will be limited."

He recommended a ten-year wait before construction of the pipeline to allow time for further study and settlement of native land claims. The project was put on hold, and ultimately an alternative route was chosen. The Berger Commission report was published in 1977 under the title, "Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland" and became an unlikely bestseller.

Public sympathy and interest in both native and environmental concerns were heightened as a result of the inquiry. And Berger Commission was a watershed event for Canadian natives.

"Berger served to politicize a lot of people," said John TSeleie, "It focused the attention of Canadians for the first time on First Nations people and some of their issues, related to the land, culture ... People from here spoke about their land, were allowed to appear on television and talk about their own history."

In the end, the pipeline was halted and Canadians natives had found the will to organize and make demands of the government. But few other concrete gains followed for aboriginal people across Canada

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, native people continued to live in poverty and social misery. Successive attempts to get commitments for change from federal and provincial politicians failed and native politicians like George Erasmus, now the head of the Assembly of First Nations, began making dire predictions about what might happen if their voices went unheard in the future.

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