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Berger Inquiry sees new life in exhibit

Miranda Scotland
Northern News Services
Published Friday, May 11, 2012

Thirty-five years ago, the Dene community made a powerful statement to Canada when they fought against the construction of the Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline at the Berger Inquiry.

Now, the leaders of that charge are hoping their efforts will inspire another generation.

"The Berger Inquiry, what it did for us is that it unified us," said Fibbie Tatti, who prepared the community for the inquiry.

"It was an incredible time for all of us and for me, it was a time of making a difference and that's what I think our young people we're asking them to do today."

The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre launched a website and exhibit about the Berger Inquiry Wednesday, where visitors can learn through pictures, audio and film about the hearings, which ultimately led to a hold on the proposed natural gas pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley.

The launch also featured a panel discussion between original Berger Inquiry participants, including former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi.

For Kakfwi, the inquiry began at a time when he and many other aboriginal youth were just getting out of residential schools and struggling to reconnect with their community. Through the hearings, they were able to find themselves again, said Kakfwi during Wednesday night's panel discussion.

"Somewhere in the mix of all that came the opportunity through the Berger Inquiry for all of us with our fathers, mothers, grandparents to speak up, unscripted in many ways, and just tell the world what we want to do, where we were, who we were and what our plans were," he said. "That really became the vision of the Dene. The vision we had for the future, all the things we wanted to do and a pipeline down the valley was just not a part of it."

The inquiry, led by Justice Thomas Berger, gave communities of the North the chance to speak out against the proposed pipeline. Up until then, the government rarely consulted aboriginal peoples on such matters.

The inquiry was a turning point for aboriginal rights, said Kakfwi, adding it helped make way for the addition of section 35 to the Canadian Constitution, which recognizes aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada.

"(The Berger report) was revolutionary," added Michael Jackson, a lawyer involved in the community hearings, explaining that it was the first government document that legitimated aboriginal peoples' right to self-determination in Canada.

"A number of us were called revolutionaries in those days because we dared to suggest that, in fact, indigenous people would have a place in Canada as equals as partners in confederation."

It was a magical time, said Kakfwi, a time when the people of the North dared to change the world. Still, the importance of the event seems to be lost on today's youth, he added.

"The Berger Inquiry itself is something of incredible inspiration and of historical value, a pivotal point ... and yet a lot of us, our grandchildren, our children, don't really know what all happened there. Perhaps it's our fault. We haven't talked about it enough," he said.

But the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre seeks to bring those memories back to aboriginal youth through the interactive elements on the website. Tatti said she hopes by looking through the material, students will be inspired to stand up and fight for their rights just as she did back in the 1970s during the Berger Inquiry.

"We are still working on land claims. We are still working on self-governance. The issues haven't changed that much. So those are the very things that (youth) can still be working on," she said. "There is so much still to be done."

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