“The stillness is the time before the change.” – Elizabeth Hay

For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  This the second part of two from my December 2010 paper on environmental assessment, Indigenous Knowledge, Aboriginal rights, and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, aka the Berger Commission.

“Ptarmigans are like us… they need all the help they can get.” – Elizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air

As Thomas Berger explains, he allowed his assumptions about economic viability and environmental concerns to be changed through his experience with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (3). In his report, he challenged the assumptions held by business interests that large projects will always go through once the appropriate measures have been taken to protect the environment—and that such measures are always possible (Page, 115).

Touching on dependence, identity politics (4), demoralization (5), self-sufficiency, sustainable development, animal rights (7), self-determination, climate (8), and sovereignty (11), Berger’s account gave a cursory overview of the considerations that complicate decisions about a pipeline in the North. The multi-faceted implications of such a project dictate an interdisciplinary approach. Berger listened to representatives of four ‘races’ and seven language groups (14) as well as various interest groups (Page, 98-99). He considered engineering, environment, expense, habitat, frost heave (16), birds, whales, caribou, climate change, land use conflicts (21), and scientific issues, as well as cultural, social, and economic impacts.

In a context not far removed from Cold War concerns about the Distant Early Warning line (c. 1954), the sale of Ookpik figurines at Expo ’67 [Did You Know: San Antonio hosted Expo ’68!  Found that out while I was there for a conference.], and Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North” (1967), Berger called for the protection of the circumpolar basin as “the heritage of all mankind” (13). He advocated international cooperation (10) and stewardship over sovereignty (11). However, his warnings about global pollution and environmental degradation (11) seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Contemporary policy-makers have resources and information about the “unique and vulnerable arctic ecosystem” (19), but curious nuclear submarines still work their way into the area.

On the one hand, Berger’s report seems to have accomplished a great deal; its wide readership brought Northern issues to the forefront for southern Canadians, and the Commission set a precedent for consultation with Indigenous communities. By letting people “speak for themselves” (15), the Inquiry validated traditional knowledge within a governmental framework. In line with the Dené call for self-government (Watkins, 3-4), as of 1999, Nunavut exists as a largely Inuit-run territory within Canada.  [Nancy Wachowich’s book, Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women (2001) offers fascinating first-person accounts from three Inuit women whose lives coincide with the process of moving into the settlement that today is as the capital of Nunavut.]

This success is an outgrowth of activism and processes that began at least as early as the 1970s. On the other hand, although Berger advocated a diversified economy (28) and explained that “native society is not static” (22), the Indian Act, treaties, and policies continue to treat Indigenous individuals with paternalism. Was Berger’s report truly a paradigm shift made possible by the socio-political context of 1970s Canada, broad media coverage (Page, 100), and hastily worded, broad terms of reference (Page, 93)?

Arguably, Berger’s inquiry was the “most successful royal commission in Canadian history” (Page, 119). Berger was determined to use the Inquiry to achieve “concrete public policy results” (Page, 90), and he did successfully call for a ten-year moratorium on the pipeline while land claims were settled. However, some treaties remain in dispute and the pipeline is proceeding after all (Cizek, 38). What is the role of Berger’s report for contemporary policy-making? In 1975, Philip Blake asked Berger (in Watkins, 8): “Do you really expect us to give up our life and our lands so that those few people who are the richest and the most powerful in the world today can maintain and defend their own immoral position of privilege?”  Should Blake be asking this same question again today and, if so, who should he be asking?


Robert Page, Northern Development: the Canadian Dilemma, 1986.

Elizabeth Hay, Late Nights on Air, 2007.

Thomas Berger, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, 1988 (rev).

Canada, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: the Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, 1977.

Mel Watkins ed., Dene Nation: the colony within, 1977.

Peter Cizek, “Northern Pipe-Dreams, Northern Nightmares: The Second Coming of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline,” Canadian Dimension, March/April 2005, pp. 36-41.

PS Happy Two-Four, Canada-land.

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6 Responses to “The stillness is the time before the change.” – Elizabeth Hay

  1. suzanne thomas says:

    there is the pause…stillness…emptying into silence…for new openings.

  2. Sindy Jeffrey says:

    what is the date of your enviromental assessment!? Dec 2011? or 2010?

    Thanks Sindy Jeffrey

  3. Sindy Jeffrey says:

    In the artical you state it was Dec 2011, was this a typo by publisher?
    For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month. This the second part of two from my December 2011 paper on environmental assessment, Indigenous Knowledge, Aboriginal rights, and the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline
    Thanks Sindy Jeffrey
    if it’s suppose to be 2010 , with your permission can I change the date on my end to 2010!?

  4. Sindy Jeffrey says:

    Thanks for your article, I look forward to more positive news on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Enjoyed the news from CBC News, what great info. I think the native bands are interested in the developement but are some that are concerned about the negative results of the money flowing in and the possible substance abuse. I believe that the Big Oil companies have to offer abuse counselling prior to employment and a continued support to the communities where the pipeline would flow through. People do not want their heritage to be lost and this must be protected both by the bands and the Oil Companies. I call it respect. I would love to negotiate for the bands and the Big Oil companies, I am also Metis.
    Thanks Sindy Jeffrey

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