When I got started on this odyssey a couple of months ago, to get caught up on the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, one of the first books I turned to for research was Thomas Berger’s Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland published in 1977.
Here is someone who has walked the walk and talked the talk long before now. Almost 40 years ago he was conducting a federal government inquiry into a gas pipeline proposed to cross the land of the Inuit of the north, and Dene of the Mackenzie Valley.
So much of what he says about his inquiry is still true of the situation today. And sheds considerable light on why there have been tense, awkward and difficult moments in the conduct of the National Energy Board Joint Review Panel in communities across the north in 2012.
In all the years of contact between the two societies, the white man still sees the North from his own point of view, and he still wishes to conquer the frozen and waste spaces that he sees, with roads, mines, drilling rigs, gas wells and pipelines. He dreams of the technological conquest of the northern frontier.
The Dene and Inuit see their land as unbounded in its ability to fulfil their deepest needs. They see moose, herds of caribou and rivers and lakes teeming with fish. To them the frozen sea does not cover riches, nor is it an obstacle to shipping, but it is a storehouse from which they can take what they need: fish, seals, walrus and whales.
It has been difficult for the native people to convince us that their preferences and aspirations are real and worthy of our respect.
Hence many southerners, including policy makers and administrators arrive at a moral imperative to bring industrial development to the frontier.
It is for reasons of this nature that the oil and gas companies and the pipeline companies are convinced that their activities will greatly benefit the people of the North. The representatives of the company regard their presence in the North as benign. They are therefore, shocked and disbelieving when native people suggest the contrary: they attribute any negative response to their proposals to ignorance or sometimes to the influence of white advisers of the native organizations.
Those who represent the industrial system have a complete and entire commitment to it, as a way of life and as a source of income. This is so whether we are public servants, representing a government whose goals are based on ideas of growth and expansion, or executives and workers in the oil and gas industry.
Thomas Berger went on to write a number of other books about the history of Canada’s relations with First Nations and the North. His books include Village Journey which is a report on the Alaska Native Landclaims Settlement Act of 1971 published in 1985; and A Long and Terrible Shadow White Values, Native Rights in the Americas since 1492, published in 1991.