The Berger Inquiry, 1970s journalism, and a book that captures it all

Some time ago, I declared on air on CBC North that the Berger report was “foundational” for the N.W.T. Er, not quite. 

The Berger inquiry — in which a B.C. judge and politician led a Royal Commission throughout the N.W.T. and much of Canada to explore whether huge companies should be allowed to build an enormous natural gas pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley — was indeed foundational. As was Berger’s finding: that no pipeline should be built until land claims were settled and northerners were in a position to benefit. 

But the 240-page report, published in 1977, is kind of a dry read, and I recently came across a great alternative.

The Past and Future Land is an account of the Berger hearings by the reporter who covered them for the Globe and Mail. The book was rushed to print in 1976, in an effort to capitalize on the public brouhaha surrounding what some derided as a media circus. 

This is not a great book. It’s not, for example, a timeless account of one’s man’s first brush with the Canadian North and his own ignorance of it, or even an essayistic account of a major consciousness-raising exercise the inquiry is now known to have been. But it’s a pretty great relic of 1970s journalism and since much of it consists of first-person submissions to the inquiry itself, it’s superb history. 

The debate at the time was whether the impact of the pipeline would be “equivalent to looking at a football field from the top of the grandstand and trying to see a thread running through the length of the field,” as the manager of northern affairs for Canadian Arctic Gas put it, or whether “a better analogy would be the slicing of the Mona Lisa with a razor.” (O’Malley attributes that great line to that reporter favourite: “others.”)

Journalism in general, let’s recall, is always a product of its time and place. The whole book has the feeling of a 1970s newscast, which has a diction, even a pitch, that just sounds foreign from our own.

Just try to read this paragraph — about the development-blocking “natives” — without the earnest and pleading tone from that time:

“They are speaking up and they are challenging today’s economic religion that mindlessly pursues growth and consumption. They are doing what we have always encouraged them to do, think for themselves, act for themselves; and they are condemned and ridiculed.” 

… and you’ll be grateful for just how firmly this book is set in the 1970s.  

In truth, I’m  not sure that an updated version of this would be any better, and besides, far more interesting is the actual testimony recounted here at length. 

For example, in five short pages, Dolphus Shae in Deline recounts his childhood in Fort Good Hope, the abrupt move to residential school in Aklavik, and his attempts to go home. “I knocked on mom and dad’s door. I had a short haircut and tie and spit-polished shoes and dad looked at me and shook his head. I felt out of place there. I went up to the people I was working for and slept there.” 

Shae describes his failed efforts to continue on in school down south, his drinking, and the jobs he always manages to find, many where he is treated none too well. He concludes by describing his time working in pipeline country around High Level during the oil boom. 

“At times I have seen some dead beavers around that area. I don’t know, maybe they got killed by trucks or got poisoned by this gas; but of course, I was the only Indian there and they asked me to skin it and I decided to return home and live the way my people had lived.”

Much of the testimony Berger heard was similarly poetic, astute, unsettling and articulate.

Frank T’Seleie in Fort Good Hope made front page news by calling one of the company heads “the Twentieth Century General Custer.”

In Fort McPherson, Richard Nerysoo could have been speaking in 2020 as he ridiculed a plaque the federal government had proposed for a national historic site. “Where are we mentioned on this plaque, Mr. Berger?”

Here’s Phillip Blake, also in Fort McPherson: “One has to read about South Africa or Rhodesia to get a clear picture of what is really happening in Northern Canada.”

A chapter on the hearings in Fort Simpson shocked me, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. The hearings there were held in two parts: one at the Legion where mostly whites testified; another at Lapointe Hall with testimony from Dene and Metis. “A federal government report on the impact of a pipeline says there are ‘serious questions as to the community’s ability to adjust to further change without large increases in the levels of alcoholism, juvenile delinquency and inter-ethnic conflict.'”

In addition to the community testimony, O’Malley includes several lengthy chapters from experts who offered historical context. 

Father Rene Fumoleau’s capsule history on the treaties should be required reading for all N.W.T.ers (it’s quite a bit shorter than his book on the subject). The history is even more poignant here because Fumoleau dedicated it to the memory of four people — an 84-year-old man and three teenagers — who had been shot in Yellowknife the day before the hearing. “I think they were victims of the so-called development which has taken place in Yellowknife over the past thirty or forty years,” Fumoleau said. 

Professor Robert Page from Trent University gave a disturbing history of the Canadian Pacific Railway, its role in the settling of the plains and its “total displacement of Indian society which had begun with the treaty negotiations.” I am embarassed to admit (much like Dan Levy) that I had never before read a history of the plains through this lens.

The anthropologist Hugh Brody also appears, with another scathing indictment of southerners turned loose in the North (See The People’s Land). Brody talks about “frontierism,” which I’ll summarize loosely as a set of ideas that valourize development while romanticizing (and infantilizing) the undeveloped world beyond its edge. Once again, he lambastes the whites in the North for failing to see the harms they themselves are causing.

You don’t get better thinkers than Hugh Brody, and the fact that this is just one fascinating chapter in this book is enough to recommend it. Highly.

This book is available at a few libraries around the N.W.T., though only the Aurora College library in Yellowknife. Thanks to Paul Andrew for loaning me his copy.

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