Canadians Listened to "Ni-Wha Judge" (Thomas Berger)

By Blair, Louisa | Compass: A Jesuit Journal, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

Canadians Listened to "Ni-Wha Judge" (Thomas Berger)


Blair, Louisa, Compass: A Jesuit Journal


In 1968 the Atlantic Richfield company was just about to cease its oil explorations in Alaska when the company president received a request from the field to drill just one more test well. He reluctantly agreed, and Prudhoe Bay became the largest oilfield in American history.

As a result of the discovery, in the early seventies when Pierre Trudeau was settling in at 24 Sussex Drive with his new wife, twenty-nine years his junior, plans were being made for what Eric Kierans called the costliest project in Canadian history, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Estimated at $6 billion and soon rising to $10 billion, as these things usually do, the 3,860-km pipeline was to carry 4.5 million cubic feet of natural gas per day (with potential to double that capacity) from Prudhoe Bay across the northern Yukon, and then south from the Mackenzie River delta to southern Canada and the United States.

Two companies vied for the contract. The more formidable was Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Ltd., an international consortium of twenty-seven companies including Exxon, Shell and Gulf. They planned the greatest construction enterprise ever undertaken, with the monumental engineering problems of freezing the gas and transporting it in pipes laid in ground chronically

destabilized by permafrost. Foothills Pipe Lines Ltd., a smaller company backed by Calgary and Vancouver interests, had a more modest proposal that would link Alaskan pipelines only with existing pipes in Alberta and British Columbia. It called this proposal the "Maple Leaf Line" and complained that Arctic Gas was planning to supply primarily U.S. markets through a pipeline that would amount to a "Panama Canal" across Canada, interfering with Canadian sovereignty and, moreover, using Canadian money to do so.

The big companies may have understood appeals to Canadian nationalism, but they were far less equipped to deal with Aboriginal land claims. The chair of Arctic Gas, W.P. Wilder, said that the company could easily negotiate with northern Aboriginal people for the 100 square kilometres under which the pipe would be buried.

In January 1974 a forty-one-year-old B.C. judge, Thomas Berger, received a phone call from Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Jean Chretien asking him to conduct an inquiry into the proposed pipeline. Berger, who liked to read Hunter Thompson, had served a brief spell as his province's NDP leader, and had a special interest in Aboriginal rights, enthusiastically agreed.

At the time, Aboriginal sovereignty claims were just beginning to elicit something other than contempt from the non-Aboriginal population. A 1965 headline in the Vancouver Sun saying "Lawyer says Indians own B.C," was seen at the time as a big joke, another B.C. lawyer noted. "No one is laughing now," he remarked in 1974. In 1975 the Dene declared themselves a nation and called for recognition. The minister of Indian Affairs dismissed their declaration as "gobbledygook," but the churches took it more seriously. In a support statement, the Canadian Catholic bishops called the development plans for the north "a serious abuse." They were joined by the Anglicans and the United Church, and together the three churches founded Project North to support northern Aboriginals and to mobilize the churches to consider northern development an ethical issue. The next year the Mennonites, Lutherans and Presbyterians joined them as well.

Berger, who came to be known to the Dene as "Ni-wha judge," or Our Judge, travelled for three years throughout the western Arctic. He listened to 317 expert witnesses, and 1,000 more witnesses at community hearings. Now back working at a law office in Vancouver, he her recalls that "we slept in schoolrooms and log cabins, and occasionally out in the open. There hasn't ever been a royal commission like it, and there won't be another." Hearings were held in tents, community halls and fishing camps, many reachable only by Twin Otter and freighter canoes. …

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