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'Great champion of Indigenous peoples,' B.C. judge, politician, Thomas Berger dies

VANCOUVER — Thomas Berger, a British Columbia politician, lawyer, judge and commissioner whose work led Canada to recognize Aboriginal title to land, has died at the age of 88.

In confirming the death, B.C. Premier John Horgan says Berger was a “giant,” who “spent a lifetime working to address injustice.” 

Berger was a former leader of B.C.’s New Democratic Party, and a B.C. Supreme Court justice, but it was his belief in Indigenous rights and his compassionate management of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry that confirmed his place as an icon of legal and social justice.

Berger acted for Nisga’a elders in 1973 in a Supreme Court of Canada appeal that resulted in the first-ever acknowledgment of the existence of Aboriginal title to land.

Horgan says Berger’s work as commissioner of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry in the 1970s was an “unprecedented public consultation process” highlighting unresolved land claims and the threat to wildlife and an entire way of life in Northern Canada.

Berger, a Queen’s Council, received the Order of Canada in 1990 and the Order of British Columbia in 2004.

A statement from the premier’s office says Berger is owed a debt of thanks and gratitude.

“He spent a lifetime moving all of us towards a just society,” Horgan says in the statement.  

“His kindness and generosity will long be remembered. His thinking will continue to influence us for generations to come.”

Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former federal justice minister and Independent member of Parliament for Vancouver Granville, says in a social media message that Berger was a “great champion of Indigenous peoples and rights.

“A true trailblazer who helped change this country for the better while personally sacrificing to do so,” writes Wilson-Raybould.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2021.

The Canadian Press