Berger, Thomas Rodney

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Berger, Thomas Rodney

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Thomas Rodney Berger, a Canadian lawyer, politician, judge, and author, was born March 23, 1933, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, the son of Maurice Theodore Berger and Nettie Elsie Perle McDonald. As a child he lived in many places across Canada, attending elementary schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan and high school in North Vancouver, British Columbia. He studied at the University of British Columbia and received the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1955 and Bachelor of Laws a year later. In 1955 Berger married Beverly Ann Crosby, with whom he had two children, Erin and David. After being called to the bar of British Columbia in 1957 he practiced law in Vancouver, rising to national prominence in the 1960s as a defender of the rights of native people in British Columbia. The 1960s also saw Berger active in party politics both nationally and provincially: he represented Vancouver-Burrard as a Member of Parliament from 1962 to 1963 and as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia from 1966 to 1969, when he was briefly leader of the New Democratic Party of B.C. and campaigned unsuccessfully to be premier of the province. In 1971 he was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, serving on the bench until 1983 when he resigned to resume his law practice. Berger headed a number of commissions of inquiry in the 1970s and 1980s related to family law, the rights of native people, and the environment. From 1973 to 1975 he chaired a Royal Commission on Family and Children’s Law in British Columbia. From 1974 to 1977 he was commissioner of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry established to determine the social, environmental, and economic impact of a proposed Arctic Gas pipeline. The Inquiry gained Berger considerable celebrity, and its report, Northern Frontier: Northern Homeland, was a Government of Canada best-selling publication. From 1979 to 1980 he was commissioner of the Indian and Inuit Health Consultation, and from 1983 to 1985 he headed the Alaska Native Review Commission for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, examining the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act; the commission’s report, Village Journey, was published in 1985. Berger’s study of human rights and dissent in Canada, Fragile Freedoms, concerned in part with constitutional issues, was published in 1981. That same year he intervened with some effect in debates concerning the framing of the new Canadian constitution, successfully advocating the inclusion of aboriginal and treaty rights – although drawing critical attention from Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the Canadian Judicial Council. Perhaps enjoying a wider latitude of expression after 1983, Berger continued as a notable speaker for audiences in Canada and the United States on questions of law, human rights, and especially the aboriginal peoples of northern Canada and the Arctic. He became involved in 1983 in efforts to gain redress for Japanese Canadians who suffered mistreatment during the war of 1939-1945. From the late 1970s Berger was also active teaching law at the University of Victoria and the University of British Columbia, where he led efforts toward founding a First Nations House of Learning; he was also an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, and assisted the establishment of its J. S. Woodsworth chair in the Humanities. In 1980 the United Nations Environmental Programme approached Berger about a commission planned (but never realized) to consider whales and whaling. For the World Bank he served from 1991 to 1992 as Deputy Chairman of an independent review of the Sardar Sarovar dam and irrigation projects in India. In 1992, quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage, his book on “white values and native rights in the Americas” appeared, entitled A Long and Terrible Shadow. Berger received the Order of Canada in 1990, and was recognized with honorary degrees from several universities for his contributions championing aboriginal peoples of Canada.


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