Thomas Berger : A Giant in Advancing Indigenous Rights

RAVEN honours the life and legacy of Thomas Berger, who died yesterday after a groundbreaking career in law. 

After being called to the bar in 1957, Berger took on cases with Vancouver’s Ironworker’s union and represented miners against the Workers Compensation Board, litigating on everything from defamation to environmental law. But his lasting legacy is in Aboriginal law and the work he did to advance Indigenous rights and Title. 

Berger was elected as an NDP MP in Vancouver-Burrard, but resigned from politics after running for premier as leader of the provincial NDP. 

He became the lawyer for the Nisga’a Nation in the landmark Calder case in the 1960s and early ’70s. The case established a powerful precedent that strengthens every legal challenge RAVEN supports: that Aboriginal title has never been extinguished, and that First Nations maintain ownership of the land. (Read more about the Calder case on RAVEN’s “Mapping Justice” page.

Berger was honoured with the Nisga’a name, Halaydam Xlaawit, “spiritual being of the mountain.” In 1971, at just 38 years old, he was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada. 

The Berger Inquiry: Setting the bar for consultation & rights recognition

As Supreme Court justice, he headed the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry to investigate the social, environmental, and economic impact of a proposed gas pipeline that would have run through the Yukon and the Mackenzie River Valley of the Northwest Territories. His uncompromising report called for a halt to the pipeline until Native land claims could be addressed. He published a best-selling book, “Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland,” about the commission’s findings that Secwepemc leader George Manuel called “the best statement on Indian rights to come from any government since the Europeans first came to Canada.”

The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline was scrapped by the National Energy Board a decade after Berger’s inquiry, preventing an oil and gas pipeline corridor from forever changing the face of Canada’s north. 

“It’s part of the Canadian experience, coming to terms with the people who were here first. Any civilized society has to do that — and it ain’t easy. We went to every village and listened to everyone who had something to say. It was an education for me and… in a sense an education for the whole country.”

— Thomas Berger on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, known as the Berger Inquiry

Berger’s last chapter: fighting Trans Mountain, protecting Peel Watershed

After retiring from the Supreme Court, Berger continued to practice law well into his 80’s. When B.C. went to court to intervene on behalf of First Nations fighting the Trans Mountain pipeline project (a case RAVEN supported by fundraising for Tsleil Waututh, Squamish and Coldwater Nations), the province hired Berger as their legal counsel. He also acted as lawyer for three Yukon First Nations in their effort to protect the Peel Watershed – a case RAVEN was also honoured to support. He was ‘ecstatic’ when the Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that Yukon’s territorial government had to collaborate with First Nations to determine a land use plan for the 68,000 km2 Peel region.

“The Peel watershed is a treasure for Yukoners, for Canadians. It’s something that we owe future generations to preserve — that we’re not just here to ransack the earth, and say goodbye.”

~ Thomas Berger

Thomas Berger’s legendary career involved mentorship and support for  generations of people who now stand strong in defence of Indigenous rights and environmental protection. We are incredibly grateful for his legacy. 

“Tom was a true champion of Indigenous peoples & rights… A true trail-blazer who helped change this country for the better.”

— Puglass (Jody Wilson Raybould)

Berger died Wednesday April 28 in Vancouver from cancer. He was 88.

From his 2002 memoir One Man’s Justice: A Life in the Law, in which he wrote that the legal system is a tool to create a better Canada: 

“I’ve never become jaded.  Weary, dispirited, furious, frustrated perhaps; but I’ve never lost my faith in the law.  I was animated by a belief – and now it is a profound belief – that the law as enforced in the courts can move us incrementally towards a just society.” 

Thomas Berger

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