Traveling exhibition sparks conversation

The Berger Inquiry

Drew Ann Wake, a CBC reporter and museum curator, is traveling the country educating students about a 40-year-old government inquiry that is now seen as a watershed moment for Canada. But some are worried that recent legislation could undermine the inquiry process. “The Inland Waters Act was changed a year ago. It takes all kind of waterways across Canada out of the public investigation and public inquiry process,” Wake says.

In 1974, the Canadian government commissioned the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, led by Justice Thomas Berger. Berger had a history in politics, having been elected to the House of Commons at age 29 and the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia at age 34. Yet it was his role as a Supreme Court of British Columbia Justice and Royal Commissioner for the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, commonly referred to as the Berger Inquiry, that he best known for.

The Berger Inquiry marked a crossroads in Canadian history as the federal government sought to understand the environmental, social and economic impacts of a proposed pipeline tracking through the Mackenzie River Valley, an area inhabited by over thirty, primarily aboriginal, communities.

Three years after the Berger Inquiry was commissioned, Justice Berger released the first volume of his report and the second a few months later. It concluded areas along the proposed pipeline route were likely to suffer significant environmental damage. The economic benefits touted by supporters of the pipeline were deemed undesirable because short-term, low-wage jobs were likely to undermine the traditional economic activities such as fishing and hunting. Finally, the social impacts of the pipeline could be disastrous for aboriginal communities. Justice Berger officially recommended a ten-year moratorium so land claims and conservation could be properly addressed.

At that time, Drew Ann Wake was a young journalist living in British Columbia. Recognizing a story of great importance developing, she travelled the Mackenzie Valley, reporting for the CBC. Now, 40 years later, Wake is still telling the story of the Berger Inquiry in the form of what she calls a teaching exhibition. In the past five years she has brought her teaching exhibition to over 30 destinations across Canada with over half the stops in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. The exhibition has been to major universities across the country and a visit to Dalhousie University is planned, which will mark the first time the exhibition has been to the Maritimes.

The spark that ignited Wake’s university tour happened in 2009 when she found a cache of audio recordings on cassette tapes. The tapes featured the voices of aboriginal elders talking at various Berger Inquiry consultations.

“Some of them were tapes from the formal hearings and community hearings, but others were interviews. I knew nobody else had the interview materials, so I said to myself ‘I have to do something’. The original instinct was to get them into the archives in Yellowknife so that people could listen to them as part of the historical record,” Wake says.

But there was a problem. Some of the voices on the tapes were unknown. Wake and photographer Linda MacCannell decided to see if they could identify the voices by traveling to the communities along the Mackenzie Valley. Along the way, MacCannel captured portraits of people involved in the Berger Inquiry. “As were doing that, we realized that we had enough material to build an exhibition,” Wake says.

The exhibition’s large format photographs, signage and booklets provide the setting for an educational, participatory process normally centered on student debates. However, in September, a group of journalist students at Calgary’s Mount Royal University experienced the exhibition in a novel way. The student journalists played the role of 1970s reporters directing questions to Justice Berger, who was on site to answer questions.

No matter the format of the exhibition, Wake thinks the educational goal is the same. “That’s what has been so fascinating. I say, ‘so what does this experience say to you?’ It’s almost invariable that young people say, ‘well, it makes me question the current process. We no longer have inquiries that are this detailed and this careful in their assessment’,” Wake says, adding, “So I think of this as a dialogue between generations.”