Berger Inquiry exhibit looks to kindle discussion

Berger Inquiry exhibit looks to kindle discussion
Exhibit-goers converse while surrounded by historical and present-day photos of elders involved in the Berger Inquiry during the opening event at Aurora College’s Thebacha Campus in Fort Smith.Photo: Maria Church.

Marking 35 years since the Berger Inquiry became a rallying point for First Nations activism in the North, a traveling exhibit honouring the elders involved in the inquiry is looking to foster debate among post-secondary students.

“The reason I set up the exhibit the way I did, as a debate, is so that people can come in and learn their own lessons from it,” Curator Drew Ann Wake told The Journal.

Although it’s been decades since the events of the 1970s, Wake said lessons can still be learned from Justice Thomas Berger’s inquiry into the social, economic and environmental impacts of a Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, which ended in a recommendation to postpone construction for 10 years because of conflicts with First Nations interests, among other concerns.

“It’s a story of young Dene and Inuit people of incredible courage who decided to stand up for what they believe in, and they won,” Wake said.

A former journalist with CBC, Wake has had a fascination with the inquiry since reading the speech years ago that former Fort Good Hope Chief Frank T’Seleie made in 1975 accusing pipeline contender Robert Blair, president of Foothills Pipe Lines Ltd., of being the 20th-century General Custer, “coming with your troops to slaughter us and steal land that is rightfully ours.”

“I believe to this day that it’s one of the finest pieces of oratory in Canada, ever,” Wake shared.

Five years ago, Wake stumbled upon hundreds of archived audio files of elders speaking at the inquiry’s consultations and decided to share the files with communities along the Mackenzie from Trout Lake to Tuktoyaktuk.

From left, Laura Hendrie and Janelle Pierrot glance through a compilation of photos from the exhibit.

Photo: Maria Church

From left, Laura Hendrie and Janelle Pierrot glance through a compilation of photos from the exhibit.

The response was overwhelming, she said. “The elders all wanted to tell stories about what they said to Judge Berger. They brought their children and their grandchildren and we thought, this is great.”

From the stories collected and photographs taken by Linda MacCannell, Wake created the Inquiry Exhibit, a then-and-now look at the participants and issues surrounding the Berger Inquiry.

The exhibit has been on display at the Aurora College campuses in Fort Smith and Inuvik for the past two weeks to give students a chance to discuss the exhibit and explore the different perspectives.

“It’s interesting because the photographs of people make you realize how long they’ve been in politics and how young they were when they got started,” said Lauraine Armstrong, a Fort Smith resident since 2000, who came to the exhibit opening at the Thebacha campus.

Richard Daitch moved to the NWT around 30 years ago. “Even when we first came, there was an immediacy to the Berger Inquiry at that time and it was part of our orientation to the North,” he said.

The traveling exhibit is scheduled to hit at least eight more post-secondary campuses before a display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC in 2014.

Funded mainly through arts and culture organizations such as the Canada Council and BC Arts Council, the Inquiry Exhibit currently has no official sponsor or final destination for a permanent display.

Yet the exhibit is already mission accomplished in Wake’s eyes, since it brought the audio files back to the communities where they were recorded in the 1970s.

“I know how I would feel if I knew that somebody had voices from my family and didn’t bother to get in touch with me,” she said.

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