Thomas Berger, lawyer who fought for groundbreaking Indigenous land claims, dead at 88

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Thomas Berger, lawyer who fought for groundbreaking Indigenous land claims, dead at 88

Thomas Berger, a legend in BC’s legal and social justice circles, died at the age of 88.

The former British Columbia Supreme Court Justice, politician and lawyer for the NDP was best known for his work on indigenous land claims.

Berger, who died Wednesday after battling cancer, is also remembered for his compassion and respect for indigenous rights.

Former Dene national boss Bill Erasmus recalled how Berger argued for the Nisga’a nation at the beginning of his legal career in the late 1960s in the landmark Calder v British Columbia case.

The final ruling of the Canadian Supreme Court in 1973 marked the first time the country’s legal system recognized the existence of the Aboriginal land title.

“As a young lawyer he stretched his neck. Not very many people believed we had a treaty or Aboriginal rights. Today it is common,” said Erasmus.

Berger was appointed British Columbia’s Supreme Court in the early 1970s and also led an investigation that put a pipeline project in the Mackenzie Valley on hold.

In that role, Erasmus said, Berger visited dozens of communities along the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon.

“He did it because he wanted to listen to the people who were in the country and knew the property issues – and that was really groundbreaking.”

In 1977, Berger published the 240-page report on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, which recommended a 10-year moratorium on pipeline construction while settling claims on indigenous land.

Advocacy for the environment and rights of indigenous peoples

After Berger resigned as a judge, he resumed his legal practice and worked on several high-level court cases.

In 2017, the British Columbia government retained Berger as an outside attorney after the province announced it was seeking approval for the project in a lawsuit against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion initiated by two dozen environmental groups and some First Nations to be questioned by the federal government.

Berger also represented First Nations and environmental groups against proposed changes to the Peel River watershed in Yukon.

Chris Rider, executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said Berger won the case for them and he was impressed to watch.

“Just like he had the Supreme Court justices wrapped around his little finger,” said Rider.

Berger, he said, was warm-hearted and quick to giggle, unpretentious and hard-working.

“We lost a giant”

Members of the legal community, First Nations and politicians have posted messages on social media recognizing Berger’s achievements in advancing the country on issues of the Aboriginal title and a meaningful public consultation.

“We lost a giant,” BC Prime Minister John Horgan said in a statement.

“He has moved us all towards a just society for our entire life. We owe him our thanks and gratitude for this. His kindness and generosity will be long remembered. His thinking will also influence us in future generations.”

Independent MP Jody-Wilson Raybould expressed condolences online, saying Berger was “a true trailblazer who has helped change this country for the better”.

Very sad about the death of Thomas R. Berger, QC OC OBC.

Tom was a great advocate for indigenous peoples and rights … a true trailblazer who has helped change this country for the better while personally sacrificing for it. “

Love & condolences to his family. #REST IN PEACE❤️ pic.twitter.com/o5sUIt4uad

– @ Puglaas

“Indigenous peoples deserve justice and fairness”

Attorney Monique Pongracic-Speier, who worked with Berger at Ethos Law Group in Vancouver, said he was a great mentor who used his shining intelligence to help people.

His legacy is leading Canada on a path to correct historical errors, she said.

“Tom repeatedly said that Indigenous Canadians, that Indigenous people deserve justice and fairness as much as other Canadians.”

LISTEN | Retired Senator Murray Sinclair recalls his friendship with Berger:

The current7:58Murray Sinclair remembers the Canadian legal pioneer Thomas Berger

Canadian legal pioneer Thomas Berger died on Wednesday at the age of 88. Retired Senator Murray Sinclair joins us in remembering his friend. 7:58

Berger was also an MLA and MP for the New Democratic Party in British Columbia in the 1960s, and served briefly as the BC NDP leader in 1969.

He received the Order of Canada in 1990 and the Order of BC in 2004.

Berger is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren.