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Thomas Berger Discusses Northern Challenges at Glendon’s Annual John Holmes Lecture


A long-standing defender of minority rights and the rights of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, lawyer and retired Justice of the B.C. Supreme Court Thomas R. Berger O.C., Q.C., O.B.C. gave the 17th Annual John Holmes Memorial Lecture at Glendon on March 31st.

His choice of topic: From the Mackenzie Valley to Nunavut: Northern Challenges was no surprise, having devoted much of his professional life to environmental, social and political issues of Canada’s Northern people. In his introduction, the lecture’s host, Glendon Professor of International Studies Stanislav Kirschbaum outlined Berger’s distinguished career. Kirschbaum pointed to Berger’s work on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, one of three Royal Commissions headed by him, and the one which brought him into national prominence.

L-r: Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts, Thomas Berger and Stanislav Kirschbaum

The 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 people who lived there. Explained in language accessible to any ordinary Canadian, Berger’s report recommended against the pipeline, resulting in the Canadian government’s putting a 10-year moratorium on the project.

“The recommendations we made have been gradually adopted over a 30-year period, instead of the originally anticipated 10”, said Berger. When he recently returned 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 have been 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, 1/3 of the financial benefit would go to the first nations who live there. “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”, added Berger. He expressed his hope that permanent laws would be established protecting this last place in the world where these herds still exist. “We, in Canada and the U.S., are the stewards of this heritage”.

In 2005, Berger went to Nunavut on the request of the Canadian government, 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 1st, 1999 with a public government comprised of Inuit and non-Inuit people. “30,000 people live in Nunavut on a land the size of India”, said Berger. “While 85% of its population is Inuit, only about 50% 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, suffering from a serious housing shortage resulting in tremendous overcrowding. 75% 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”, explained Berger, “they spend many months of the year in overheated, smoke-filled homes.” Clearly, social policies need to be reviewed in order to address this situation.

Kenneth McRoberts; former York University President H. Ian McDonald; with former Deputy Minister of Ontario and retired Glendon Political Science Professor Donald Stevenson

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

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 4 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, 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 North-West 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”, concluded Berger. “We have an obligation to keep our promise to help them succeed.”

Right: L-r: Thomas Berger with Stanislav Kirschbaum

The 2009 John Holmes Lecture welcomed a host of illustrious members in its audience, including three previous presenters in the series: renowned author and public figure, His Excellency John Ralston Saul; Jean-Louis Roy, Secretary-General of the International Organization of the Francophonie; and Glendon alumna Helen Sinclair, former President of the Canadian Bankers’ Asociation. Others present included former York University President H. Ian McDonald, former Liberal Minister of Transport and Distinguished Fellow at Glendon David Collenette, Jean-Gabriel Castel Q.C. Distinguished Senior Scholar and Research Professor Emeritus at York's Osgoode Hall Law School, and York University Dean of the Faculty of Arts Robert Drummond.

More about Thomas R. Berger

Currently a practicing lawyer, Thomas Berger has been prominent in defending minority rights and establishing the rights of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. He served as a Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia from 1971 to1983. During that time, he was Chairman of the Royal Commission on Family and Children’s Law, B.C, 1973-74, Commissioner of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry 1974-77, and of the Inquiry on Indian and Health Consultation 1979-80 for the Government of Canada. Thomas Berger is the author of Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland (1977); Village Journey: a Long and Terrible Shadow (1985); Fragile Freedoms: Human Rights and Dissent in Canada (1981), and One Man’s Justice: A Life in the Law (2002). He acted as Conciliator in 2005-2006 with respect to a series of disputes between the Government of Canada and the Government of Nunavut; 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, O.C., 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 History Department 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 Under-Secretary General of the United Nations in 1989. Other distinguished speakers have included former Prime Minister of Canada, Kim Campbell; Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations, Louise Fréchette; Canadian ambassadors Geoffrey Pearson and Anne Leahy; His Excellency John Ralston Saul; retired Supreme Court Justice Peter deCarteret Cory; and former Deputy Secretary-General of Amnesty International (and Glendon alumnus) Vincent del Buono, among others.

Article by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on April 3, 2009