‘As a Judge and a Royal Commissioner, Tom Berger provided a larger landscape for understanding how recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples has indelibly Ied to a Canadian vision of a Just Society.’
Michael Jackson Faculty of Law, University of BC
Tom was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of British Columbia at the age of 38 in 1972 – the youngest judge appointed in a century – but resigned from the judiciary in 1983 after speaking out to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Constitution. Tom’s most cherished honour, however, was the name bestowed on him in 1997 by the Nishga’a Nation, ‘Halaydin Xhlamwit’, which means Spirit of the Mountain.
Tom was the author of well received books and Commission reports including: ‘Fragile Freedoms’: Legal rights for minorities in Canada; ‘One Man’s Journey’: an autobiography of Tom’s life in the law; ‘A Long and Terrible Shadow: white values, native rights in the Americas 1492-1992’ as well as Commission reports such as ‘Northern Frontier; Northern Homeland’ about the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline inquiry; ‘Village Journey’: the Report of the Alaska Native Review Commission and the Sardar Sarovar report about the independent review for the World Bank concerning the impact of dam project in India.
Berger never held high political office. He was never in a federal or provincial cabinet, and his brief stint as New Democratic leader in B.C. ended with defeat, both his party’s and his own. But Berger left a larger legacy than many who had more power and held higher office.
In a way, what Tommy Douglas did for universal health care in Canada, Tom Berger did for Indigenous rights. He deserves to be long remembered, even revered, for that contribution.
Fragile Freedoms: Human Rights and Dissent in Canada
Canada, as Thomas R. Berger conceives it, is that country which, rejecting both the ethnically defined nation-states which give it birth and the melting pot uniformity of its sibling to the south, attempts to unify itself through the vocation of diversity. Diversity, as he says, is the essence of the Canadian experience.
The history of human rights and dissent in Canada as Fragile Freedoms is subtitled is therefore a history of Canada. Each chapter is an episode in which the majority is challenged by a minority which attempts to preserve its identity in the face of a strident movement of assimilation.