June 4, 2013 - 2:17am

NANAIMO, BC – Former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Berger was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws yesterday (June 3) at Vancouver Island University’s spring convocation.

Berger was acknowledged for his exceptional record of distinction in legal affairs and a passion for helping to improve the lives of Aboriginal peoples in BC and Canada.

One of Canada’s pre-eminent legal figures and human rights advocates for more than 40 years, Berger was the youngest judge appointed to the Supreme Court of BC in the 20th century. His life-long advocacy on behalf of Aboriginal people began here in Nanaimo when, as a young lawyer, he argued an important case in 1963 called Regina v. White and Bob. Berger defended two young men from the Nanaimo Indian Band (today known as Snuneymuxw First Nation) who were charged with hunting out of season. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and, in 1965, the Supreme Court affirmed their right to hunt under a treaty made at Nanaimo in 1854.

The case had important ramifications because it successfully resurrected the Douglas Treaties that the government of the colony of Vancouver Island had signed with First Nations on Southern Vancouver Island in the 1850s. Berger also argued the landmark case of Calder v. B.C., (the Nisga’a case) in which the Supreme Court of Canada for the first time declared that Aboriginal title was recognized in Canadian law.

Appointed to the Supreme Court of B.C. in 1971, Berger served on the bench until 1983. He is perhaps best known for his work as Commissioner of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in 1974-1977. On his recommendation, the Government of Canada rejected the Arctic Gas pipeline proposal, established wilderness parks in the Northern Yukon, and agreed to a moratorium on major development in the region until Aboriginal land claims in the Mackenzie Valley had been settled.

Berger also made headlines when he resigned his seat over the reversal of the decision to include Aboriginal and treaty rights in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s repatriated Constitution. Berger’s stand was instrumental in persuading Trudeau and the premiers to reinstate Aboriginal and treaty rights in the new Constitution adopted in 1982.

He headed the Alaska Native Review Commission from 1983-1985, and was vice-chairman of the World Bank’s Sardar Sarovar Inquiry in India in 1991-1992.

Now 80, Berger continues to practise law in Vancouver. In March, 2013, he was successful on behalf of the Manitoba Métis Federation in persuading the Supreme Court of Canada to declare that the promises of land that John A. Macdonald’s government had made to Louis Riel in 1870 had not been fulfilled. Berger holds honorary degrees from 13 universities, received the Order of Canada in 1990, was granted the Freedom of the City of Vancouver in 1992, and in 2004 was awarded the Order of British Columbia.



Janina Stajic, Manager, Vancouver Island University

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