Ideas·Ideas Afternoon

Learning to listen: Paul Kennedy's takeaway lesson

In order to make his first-ever IDEAS documentary, back in 1977, Paul Kennedy paddled a 14-foot canoe down the 1,600 km Mackenzie River. He recently revisited the area in March 2019, and talked with some of the people he met 42 years ago. Those conversations provide the context for Paul's final IDEAS episode.

'Like many IDEAS listeners, I too have learned so much over the years,' says the IDEAS host

Paul Kennedy holds one of Justice Thomas Berger's reports from the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. Behind him is the frozen Deh Cho (Mackenzie) River, in front of Big River Service station at Fort Providence, NWT. (Bill Braden)

** Originally published on June 28, 2019.

Paul Kennedy says goodbye as IDEAS host, returning to where he first began.

In July 1977, Paul traveled to Fort Providence, Northwest Territories, where he put his canoe in the water, and started paddling 1,600 km all the way to the Arctic Ocean.
Paul Kennedy in his canoe during his first trip down the Mackenzie River, in 1977. (Submitted by Paul Kennedy)

He was making his very first documentary for IDEAS, the program he'd later host for 20 years.

It was also the year that the Berger Inquiry report came out — on whether to construct an oil pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley. That trip and that inquiry taught both the nation and Paul himself the real value of listening.

"I had no 'idea' that during that trip I'd discover what a river really is, and how much a river means, on this watery planet we insist on calling Earth," Paul says.

Paul's first contribution to IDEAS was called The Fur Trade Revisited. In spring 2019, he returned to the region to talk to some of the people he met there, and to "take the temperature of the country" — and perhaps the world.

Because what happens in Canada's North captures what happens elsewhere, from climate change to politics.
I think maybe the biggest takeaway lesson for me is to learn how to listen. I'm still learning.- Paul Kennedy

Rewind to that summer of 1977. The Government of Canada had recently released a report that contained the final conclusions of a Royal Commission, better known as the Berger Inquiry.

Justice Thomas Berger had been tasked with determining whether Ottawa should grant a petroleum consortium permission for a natural gas pipeline — a move that would, its proponents claimed — open up the North for industry and development, and provide badly needed jobs.

Takeaway lesson for Canada

Justice Berger travelled up and down the Mackenzie River, listening to what the Dene People living there had to tell him. It was a groundbreaking process and one person Paul spoke with in this final episode is George Erasmus, who was a key figure in making sure that Dene voices were heard during the Berger Inquiry. 

"I don't think anybody that was anywhere near the Inquiry realized that this was a profound moment. That history was being made," he told Paul.

Moonlight on the De Cho Bridge that spans across the Mackenzie River, near Fort Providence, NWT. (Bill Braden)

In fact, Justice Berger's travels across the North — covering tens of thousands of miles, over three long and expensive years — began at George's suggestion. 

It concluded in May 1977, with the publication of the Berger Report. It became an instant bestseller, with 10,000 copies sold within the first week. And it ultimately recommended against constructing the pipeline — at least in the short-term, while it also articulated ways to balance development on the one side and Indigenous and environmental concerns on the other.

The precedent was set: governments and corporations must listen to the people most affected by their plans before those plans are acted on.

As Margaret Thom, Commissioner of the Northwest Territories, told Paul: "It's come to a point where the world knows we are here. And people know that we need to consult — it's really come up in the forefront.

"We're not going anywhere. This is where we're going to stay."

Paul's takeaway lesson

"I guess that's why I've always felt a little bit embarrassed about my first documentary project for IDEAS," says Paul.

"In the very moment of this 'tipping point' in the history of our country, there I was, paddling my 14-foot fibreglass canoe — all the way up to the Arctic Ocean, down the mighty Mackenzie River, trying to put together a story about the historical fur trade." 

It was for this very reason that Paul wanted to return in 2019, to where he'd been for that first documentary.

"I came North again to listen to people's stories about their past, and also about the present… And in the process, I hoped to find out what I could about Canada's national 'temperature' today.

"Like many IDEAS listeners, I too have learned so much over the years. I think maybe the biggest takeaway lesson for me is to learn how to listen. I'm still learning."

Guests in the program:

  • Margaret Thom is Commissioner of the Northwest Territories
  • Bill Braden is a photographer who lives in Yellowknife, NWT.
  • George Erasmus is a Canadian politician and Indigenous leader. He was the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations from 1985 to 1991.
  • Louie Goose is a musician from Inuvik, NWT.

** This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy with help from Tom Howell and Danielle Duval.