Behchokǫ̀ (May 05, 2021) - On April 28, 2020, legendary lawyer and jurist Thomas Berger passed away.  The Tłı̨chǫ Government, on behalf of the Tłı̨chǫ nation, expresses its deep condolences on his passing.

Tom Berger had a long career filled significant victories and important steps forward towards the true recognition of the rights of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.  For the Tłı̨chǫ, it was through his leadership of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, also known as the Berger Inquiry, that Tom had some of his most profound impacts.

The Berger Inquiry was a huge undertaking for the North in the mid-1970s.  It was a time when the only real connection the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Territories had to Ottawa was the annual visit of the Treaty Party.  This annual visit was the only opportunity to raise issues and was the single, brief, connection Northern Indigenous peoples had to the centre of Canadian governance. 

In 1974, when the Berger Inquiry began, Tłı̨chǫ people had only recently moved into communities from the bush.  They remained reliant on the lands and waters for their way of life and harvesting of fish and wild game remained the main staple in people’s diets.  These were people who still very much lived on the land, as they had for generations.

The Berger Inquiry provided these people with a voice like never before, an opportunity to be heard, and a chance to have a real say about their future and about the future of their lands.  Testifying before the Inquiry, they shared their knowledge of the land in detail.  They provided evidence of the harms that would be caused by continued, unfettered, encroachment onto their lands, and the damage that would be done if development occurred without consideration of what was most important to those who would be most impacted.

This government-sanctioned inquiry, under the leadership of Tom Berger, would prove to be a turning point.  Berger listened.  He came into the communities and he spent time with the people of the land. He heard peoples’ stories, often in their own languages.  He paid attention.  And ultimately, when he issued his report, he remained mindful of what he had heard and he urged a conditional approach – no pipeline development until government had first worked towards the settlement of claims.

Berger’s work and the work of the Inquiry allowed the Indigenous peoples in the North, like the Tłı̨chǫ, to pursue self-determination by way of a land claims and self-government agreement.  He helped Indigenous people to chart their own path, today and for their future generations.  For those in the North, his legacy, and the importance of his work, echoes to this day.


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