Thursday, April 29, 2021

The passing of Justice Tom Berger mourned across Canada and especially by the Nisga'a Nation

Thomas Berger upon receipt
of the Order of BC in 2014
A significant passing in British Columbia was recorded today, with word that Thomas R. Berger had passed away on Wednesday after a lengthy battle with cancer. 

His career in law, politics and Indigenous Advocacy one which had an impact on many of the pivotal moments in recent Canadian and British Columbia history.

Justice Berger was known for many key moments of judicial service, but two of the most prominent items on his extensive resume had long lasting importance. 

First was his work with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Industry Commission which set the template for many consultations with Indigenous Nations in the years that followed.

In the Northwest, Mr. Berger served as a Counsel for the Nisga'a elders as part of a pivotal court case on Aboriginal title, one which laid the foundation for the Nisga'a Treaty years late.

Those two themes and many others were shared by Premier John Horgan with a statement to commemorate Mr. Berger's passing and career, a segment of which included political life from the early to late 1960's, including leadership of the provincial NDP party and service as an MP.

"Mr. Berger was counsel for the Nisga’a elders who were plaintiffs in Calder v. Attorney-General for British Columbia (1973), a historic case in which the Supreme Court of Canada first acknowledged the existence of Aboriginal title to land. 

 His work as commissioner of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry resulted in a report highlighting unresolved land claims, as well as the threat to wildlife upon which the local Indigenous peoples relied on for survival. 

An unprecedented public consultation process helped highlight what was at stake for the Indigenous peoples of the North.

As a lawyer, judge and commissioner, he helped countless ordinary people in their struggles against powerful interests. He changed life in this province and in this country for the better."

His work at the side of the Nisga'a in 1973 was commemorated in the Nass Valley today.

In a statement issued today by Eva Clayton, the President of the Nisga'a Nation outlines the importance that the work of that Mr. Berger engaged on as he advocated for Aboriginal rights in British Columbia, Canada and beyond 

“Today we lost a champion, trusted partner, and friend. Thomas Berger worked tirelessly to help the Nisg̱ a’a make our case and the Nisg̱ a’a Nation is eternally grateful. He helped show the world that recognizing Aboriginal title and rights doesn’t create divisions but in fact strengthens Canada.”

Today's information release from the Nisga'a Nation also notes how much the work of Mr. Berger had impacted on their Nation and how they paid tribute to his efforts.

In recognition of his service to the Nisg̱ a’a Nation, Berger was adopted by the Nisga’a House of Wilps Hleeḵ and given the Nisg̱ a’a name Halaydim X̱ laawit, which means Shaman of X̱ laawit—one of the four Saviour Mountains that rescued the Nisg̱ a’a during the great flood.

Some further background on his celebrated career across the Nation can be found from selected items below:

Order of British Columbia 2014
History Project UBC Law
Maclean's feature 1977

A sample of his oratory on Indigenous rights and land claims issues can be found from this archived feature from a 2013 conference

Check our Victoria Viewpoints archive from our D'Arcy McGee blog later this evening when we update the day's highlights with special section that will feature today's reminiscences of the life of Themas Berger.

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