By Dr John Bacher and Danny Beaton, Mohawk of the Turtle Clan.
Upon the conclusion of a three-year court battle which produced a moral victory in the Supreme Court of Canada 1973, the Nishga'a bestowed a great honour for their lawyer, Thomas Berger. They gave him a new name, Halayadam y laawit, which in their language means "Spiritual Being of the Mountain." This tribute, akin to formal adoption into the nation, was a vivid expression of how Thomas Berger, from the emergence of a life as a champion of eco-justice, would tower above more petty personalities of the Canadian nation; until his death at 87 in the midst of preparation for another legal battle.
The challenges of those who struggle for eco-justice in the disrupted landscapes south of the northern territories in the Canadian provinces, became vividly expressed in over three decades, between the Nishga'a 1973 victory in the Calder Case and their final treaty entrenched in legislation. Many lamented that the obstructions would cause the Nishga'a to obtain title over stumps. However, they secured a means to help repair the damage to restore from the pillage of their traditional territory of the Nass River Valley.
The Nishga'a’s victory is expressed in the words of one of their territorial management plans. It pledges that "we must take care of this Earth - all the animals, every stream and valley and this land on which you live."
The great triumph of Spiritual Being of the Mountain following the Calder Case would be his role in protecting the Porcupine Caribou herd, the backbone of the culture of the Gwitchin Nation. While all the other caribou herds in the world are shrinking from the plunder of mining, dams and new roads, this herd is at a historic high of 280,000 animals. While other caribou in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic are thinning and worsening in health, the Porcupine's Caribou are gaining weight in a healthy way.
The protection of the Porcupine Caribou herd by the Spiritual Being of the Mountain would be accomplished in two phases. The first, would be accomplished through the recommendations of his inquiry into the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Its recommendations caused the federal government to protect the entire coastal plain area of the northern Yukon from mining — where the Porcupine Caribou herd has a calving ground. This was later followed up by the establishment of the Ivvatick and Vuntut National Parks.
In his eighties, the Spiritual Being of the Mountain would successfully champion in the courts for the Gwitchin and environmental groups to protect the Porcupine Caribou herd's winter range, threatened by petroleum and mining interests. A testament to his skill in these proceedings came from Chris Rider, Executive Director of the Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Rider recalls how, "The longer he went on, the more he brought it together in this really incredible way and the more you would see the Supreme Court justices wrapped around his little finger."
The dramatic success of the Spiritual Being of the Mountain in protecting the Porcupine Caribou herd can be seen in the contrasting collapse of the adjacent Bluenose East herd in the North West Territories. Roads and mines for diamonds and copper have devastated caribou. The herd's numbers have crashed from 186,000 in 2003 to 16,000 today. In 2019, an expedition from the Sierra Club of the United States explored the Bluenose Range and could not encounter a single caribou.
The life of the Spiritual Being of the Mountain should inspire hope. Informed strategies uniting native communities and environmentalists can protect the earth, despite the power and wealth of those who plot for greed to wreck it.
There is one way to win an environmental fight. It is by informing the public and society of the facts and consequences of what is being done to harm Mother Earth. The second way to win an environmental issue is through the courts, even through the Supreme Court of Canada with a good lawyer. Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons says "All assaults to Mother Earth are an assault on our children's future." Dene Chief Bill Erasmus said he and Tom Berger travelled to communities in BC, Northwest Territories and the Yukon to learn of the facts and connection to the land that Indigenous People there had within their original territories and land base.
By 1973 Thomas Berger had won the Supreme Court of Canada, ruling the first time the legal system acknowledged the existence of Aboriginal title to land. Thomas Berger recommended the Mackenzie Pipeline be given a ten-year moratorium because of Indigenous society and connection to the land. No other lawyer has proved or won Indigenous Land Claims or Indigenous Rights like Thomas Berger has.
As Indigenous People of Canada and North America, we send our deepest respect and condolences to his family and loved ones. Chief Oren Lyons said, "When we assault or destroy Mother Earth, we are not just destroying life or caribou, moose, bird life and fish life. We are destroying our children's future and their children”.
Photo credit: A Song For Thomas by Danny Beaton and John Bacher taken by Ian Chung.