Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Berger Report at 40, and an Experiment

Berger Inquiry hearing at Wrigley, NWT, 1975 (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)

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In March 1974, Justice Thomas Berger of the Supreme Court of British Columbia was commissioned by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government to study the environmental, economic, and social effects of a pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley. The pipeline, proposed by Arctic Gas and Foothills Pipelines, would have run from American and Canadian oil fields along the Beaufort Sea “to the lower 48.”

The Order-in-Council calls upon the Inquiry to consider the social, economic and environmental impact of the construction of a pipeline in the North. The effect of these impacts cannot be disentangled from the whole question of native claims.

Berger map

Berger’s commission published its report in 1977. The inquiry and the final report are remarkable in Canadian history for any number of reasons: the attention to the north, the media coverage, the final recommendation (that the pipeline not be constructed until all land claims were settled, and with careful attention to environmental integrity), and the platform for aboriginal voices – especially Dene, Inuit, and Métis.

Hearing at Nahanni Butte, 1975 (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)
At Nahanni Butte, 1975 (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)

2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. There are now excellent resources about the inquiry online, including televised testimony, and there is a growing interest in fuel history in Canada. And in many ways, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland’s comment on the northern environment, aboriginal rights, and the prudence of pipelines is as relevant now as in 1977.

Artificial Island in the Beaufort Sea, 1976 Crosbie Gallery. Prince of Wales Heritage Centre.
Artificial Island in the Beaufort Sea, 1976 (Crosbie Gallery Prince of Wales Heritage Centre)

Andrew Stuhl teaches environmental humanities at Bucknell, including an upper-year class on “Cold Places.” (Coincidentally, and appropriately, his book Unfreezing the Arctic appeared last year with the University of Chicago Press.) Since he’s an historian, he’s attuned to dates like this. He also has enormous amounts of primary sources related to the inquiry, including full transcripts of the community hearings. He approached Emily Sherwood, of our Digital Pedagogy office, about annotating the Berger report as an experiment in digital humanities. I teach a first-year history course on “Northern Exposures: Canada and the Environment,” which spends about a month on the (actual and imagined) Canadian north, so we decided to make this a joint effort/experiment by having both our classes work on it. (Note: I am not a digital humanist. I mean, I type on a computer, but that’s it, despite Josh MacFadyen’s best efforts.)

So what are we trying to do, and how are we doing it? Emily suggested we use Hypothesis, which is a relatively simple, open-source annotation program. Andrew and I selected chapters that match the emphases of each class. Cold Places will annotate Chapter 6, “The Mackenzie Delta-Beaufort Sea Region,” which discusses the impact of industrial development on the ecology of an arctic shoreline.

Chief Frank T'Selei, in the NFB documentary "Fort Good Hope" (dir. Ron Orieux, 1977)
Chief Frank T’Selei, in the NFB documentary Fort Good Hope, 1977 (dir. Ron Orieux)

Northern Exposures will work on Chapter 11, “Native Claims,” which is a wonderful encapsulation of the settler / aboriginal relationship through Canada’s history, and raises questions about what it means to be “in the national interest.” I also wanted students to have as much exposure as possible to aboriginal voices (compared to, for example, the chapters based on testimony from the gas companies.)

We must again become a people making our own history. To be able to make our own history is to be able to mould our own future, to build our society that preserves the best of our past and our traditions, while enabling us to grow and develop as a whole people.                                                                                                  Robert Andre, Arctic Red River, 13 March 1976

Last, in this chapter Berger goes farther than you’d expect in drawing a clear and direct lesson from history (shocking, I know):

The historical record shows that if the land claims of the Metis had been settled, there would have been no Northwest Rebellion…There is a direct parallel between what happened on the prairies after 1869 and the situation in the Northwest Territories today. Then, as now, the native people were faced with a vast influx of whites on the frontier. Then, as now, the basic provisions for native land rights had not been agreed. Then, as now, a large-scale frontier development project was in its initial stages, and a major reordering of the constitutional status of the area was in the making.

Students will each choose three terms to research; write short annotations that supply additional historical context; and append an image from LAC or another Canadian archive. From the first few pages of Chapter 11, for example, these might include:

  • the legal frameworks of aboriginal rights by proclamation (Royal Proclamation of 1763), court challenges (St. Catherines Milling, Nishga [Nisga’a]), treaties (Treaty 8, Treaty 11), and agreements (James Bay, Alaska Claims Settlement Act)
  • historical concepts or events (decimation of the buffalo, scrip)
  • places (Norman Wells, Great Slave Lake, Wood Buffalo National Park)
  • peoples (Chipewyan, Dene, Inuit)

Many of these terms may be already familiar to Canadian readers (Gabriel Dumont, Rupert’s Land), but others (extinguishment of title, the Carrothers Commission, Aklavik) may not. They certainly are not to students outside of Canada. For someone not teaching a Canadian history survey class, Berger covered a lot of ground.

The hope is to carry through this multi-course annotation project over the next couple of years, with different classes annotating different sections – editing and responding to earlier annotations – and, most importantly, having the annotated resource publically available. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, in terms of what attracts students’ interest and what the digital platform can add, either in our understanding of the text or students’ skills.

Wrigley vista, 1975 (PWHC)
From Wrigley, NWT, 1975 (Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre)

Regardless, in an age of Keystone and Northern Gateway and Energy East and DAPL and presumably another Mackenzie Valley, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland should be essential reading. I don’t want to unduly heroize Berger, but he got a lot of this right. His insistence on ecological protection reads as if from an alternate (wistfully, preferable) reality. His articulation of aboriginal rights anticipated by decades the language of reconciliation:

Judge Thomas Berger talking to Chief Jim Antoine of Fort Simpson in 1975, Trout Lake. Canadian Press. Published in the epilogue to the inquiry's report, appropriately titled "Themes for the National Interest."
Judge Thomas Berger talking to Chief Jim Antoine of Fort Simpson in 1975, Trout Lake. Canadian Press. Published in the epilogue to the inquiry’s report, appropriately titled “Themes for the National Interest.” One of my favourite images for teaching about Canada and the north.

The native peoples of the North now insist that the settlement of native claims must be seen as a fundamental re-ordering of their relationship with the rest of us. Their claims must be seen as the means to the establishment of a social contract based on a clear understanding that they are distinct peoples in history. They insist upon the right to determine their own future, to ensure their place, but not assimilation, in Canadian life.

Since the current political climate has brought certain classics back onto the best-seller lists, maybe Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland could be next.


All excerpts from Chapter 11 of Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry.

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Professor of History at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where I revel in Canadiana and environmental history. Also a lover of exploring, maps, Jane of Lantern Hill, and Scandinavia.


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