Canada and the US the stewards of northern heritage, Thomas R. Berger says

A long-standing defender of minority and Aboriginal rights, Thomas R. Berger, lawyer and retired justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, told the audience at the 17th annual John Holmes Memorial Lecture that he hoped permanent laws would be established protecting the Mackenzie Valley, the last place in the world where porcupine caribou herds still exist.

“We, in Canada and the US, are the stewards of this heritage,” said Berger during the March 31 lecture, From the Mackenzie Valley to Nunavut: Northern Challenges”, at Glendon. “While many problems still remain in the Mackenzie Valley, there has been major progress in measures towards aboriginal self-government, language protection and the safeguarding of porcupine caribou herds.”

Left: Thomas R. Berger (left) and Stanislav Kirschbaum

Glendon international studies Professor Stanislav Kirschbaum introduced Berger by pointing to his work on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, one of three royal commissions headed by Berger and the one which brought him national prominence. Berger devoted much of his professional life to environmental, social and political issues of Canada’s northern people.

The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry revealed many serious concerns relating to the proposed pipeline, such as the threat to the fragile ecology of the northern tundra and its wildlife, as well as the land claims of the Aboriginal Peoples who lived there. Berger’s report was against the pipeline, resulting in a 10-year moratorium of the project.

“The recommendations we made have been gradually adopted over a 30-year period, instead of the originally anticipated 10,” said Berger, adding that when he returned recently to the area, the local people remembered the importance of the inquiry and his role in it. Many of the aboriginal land claims have since been settled and vast areas set aside for protecting wildlife, and for maintaining the aboriginal inhabitants’ traditional way of life. An agreement has also been signed guaranteeing that if a pipeline is built in the future, one third of the financial benefit would go to the First Nations who live there.

Right: Kenneth McRoberts (left), York President Emeritus H. Ian Macdonald and former York professor and deputy minister of Ontario Donald Stevenson

Berger went to Nunavut on the request of the Canadian government in 2005, publishing a report the following year on the territory’s issues of education and employment. Canada signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in 1993 and the territory of Nunavut was established on April 1, 1999 with a public government comprised of Inuit and non-Inuit people. “Thirty-thousand people live in Nunavut on land the size of India,” said Berger. “While 85 per cent of its population is Inuit, only about 50 per cent of government employees come from that background, doing mostly lesser-paying jobs. The problem lies in education, because there are not enough qualified Inuit to fill the jobs requiring higher skills.”

Berger described the living conditions of the Inuit population, who are suffering from a serious housing shortage resulting in tremendous overcrowding. Some 75 per cent of Inuit youth drop out of school before completing high school, often turning to drugs, alcohol and sometimes crime. “They don’t have the space or the conditions to do their homework,” said Berger. “They spend many months of the year in overheated, smoke-filled homes.” Clearly, social policies need to be reviewed to address this situation.

Nunavut’s Inuit language – Inuktitut – is thriving, spoken in 83 per cent of Inuit homes and by 70 per cent of the overall population. In fact, 15 per cent of the Inuit living there have no other language, which prevents them from being able to fill many of the available jobs.

Left: Kenneth McRoberts (left), Thomas R. Berger and Stanislav Kirschbaum

The 2006 Berger report, called “The Nunavut Project”, recognized this gap and recommended bilingual education, which was implemented, but in a format that did not provide the expected results. With the first four grades dedicated exclusively to Inuktitut and the next years devoted to English, students were not proficient enough in reading and writing either language, became frustrated and dropped out of school.

With the participation of specialists in language learning and language teaching, including Ian Martin, Glendon professor of English and ESL and coordinator of Glendon’s Certificate in the Discipline of Teaching English as an International Language, they tried to work out a scheme for bilingual education that made sense – one that provided immersion in both languages from Kindergarten to Grade 12. A major problem is the cost involved and additional funds are hard to find. Berger held up Glendon as an excellent example of success in bilingual education. “Canada has an obligation to help the Inuit improve their situation and take their place in running their own affairs.”

Berger warned that with global warming and the possibility of shipping and navigation across the Northwest Passage, oil and gas exploitation in the Far North is almost a certainty. Climate change may affect the habitat and migration patterns of polar bear and caribou populations, resulting in the loss of traditional resources. It will also bring an influx of non-Inuit people to the North, having a significant impact on the ability of the local population to maintain its traditional lands and occupations. “We need to educate the Inuit young so that they can benefit from the jobs that will be created. It is our duty to ensure that they are not just spectators of their land’s development, but fully trained participants.”

Berger pointed to the highly developed Inuit culture that Canadians as a whole admire: their sculpture and other art forms, their prize-winning movies, such as Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and The White Dawn, and a currently evolving Inuit literature. “Societies find strength in diversity,” said Berger. “We have an obligation to keep our promise to help them succeed.” 

More about Thomas R. Berger

Currently a practising lawyer, Berger previously served as a justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia (1971-1983). During that time, he was chair of the Royal Commission on Family and Children’s Law in BC (1973-1974), commissioner of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (1974-1977) and of the Commission on Indian and Health Consultation (1979-1980) for the Canadian government. Berger is the author of Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977); Village Journey: The Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission (1985), A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas Since 1942 (1999); Fragile Freedoms: Human Rights and Dissent in Canada (1981) and One Man’s Justice: A Life in the Law (2002). In addition, he acted as conciliator with respect to a series of disputes between the government of Canada and the government of Nunavut from 2005 to 2006; his report is called “The Nunavut Project”.

More about the annual John Holmes Memorial Lecture

The annual John Holmes Memorial Lecture at Glendon honours the late John W. Holmes, Canadian diplomat, writer, administrator and professor of international relations at Glendon from 1971 to 1981. Holmes was a tireless promoter of Canada at home and abroad in political, diplomatic and educational circles. He also participated in the founding of the United Nations and attended its first General Assembly in 1945.

Shortly after Holmes’ death in 1988, a memorial fund was set up at Glendon under the leadership of Professor Albert Tucker, principal of Glendon from 1970 to 1975 and chair of the Department of History at the time, to create a series of annual lectures sponsored by Glendon’s International Studies Program honouring the late Holmes.

The first John Holmes Memorial Lecture was delivered by Sir Brian Urquhart, retired undersecretary general of the United Nantions in 1989. Other distinguished speakers have included former prime minister of Canada Kim Campbell; former deputy secretary general of the UN Louise Fréchette; Canadian ambassadors Geoffrey Pearson and Anne Leahy; author John Ralston Saul; retired Supreme Court Justice Peter deCarteret Cory; and former deputy secretary general of Amnesty International and Glendon alumnus Vincent del Buono (BA Hons ’72), among others.

Submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny