WHAT A LOVELY BOOM it was to be. Earth Day 1970 was a recent memory, and then president Richard Nixon was expanding American involvement in Vietnam. But for many, the action was in Northern Canada. It was full speed ahead for frontier oil and gas. Oil wells would be pumping, compressor stations shrieking, and to carry the wealth south, soon the biggest megaproject of all: the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline.

What a difference a few decades make. Or not. The environment is hot again, another president is trapped in an unpopular war and another Mackenzie pipeline is on the way. This time, a consortium of American-owned companies – ConocoPhillips, Shell, ExxonMobil and Imperial – have joined forces with a local partner, the Aboriginal Pipeline Group. They see a pipeline in place by 2014. Gas would flow from wells in the Mackenzie Delta possibly to the Athabasca oil sands, to fuel some of the world’s most destructive oil projects. The plan demands billions in subsidies. It would have consequences for the delta, the boreal forest and global climate change. Yet it has generated little national debate. Where, one wonders, is Thomas Berger when we need him?

Thirty years ago, Justice Thomas Berger delivered his report, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland. It examined a pipeline proposed for the Mackenzie Valley. His advice overturned conventional assumptions about Northern affairs. The greatest need, he argued, was not accelerated resource development, but opportunities for Native people living in the North to determine their own future. For this, they needed the self-determination that could only come through land-claim agreements.

Accordingly, he recommended a 10-year moratorium for the pipeline to give time for these agreements to be negotiated. Nor, he said, should development always take precedence over environmental priorities. Instead, given the potential irreversible impact of a pipeline, some sensitive areas, like the Yukon North Coast – the habitat of caribou and beluga whales, among other species – should be preserved for all time. And finally, he suggested it was wrong to assume that oil and gas were the only viable foundation for the Northern economy. Country food, furs, hunting and trapping were still important to Northern communities and could remain so in the future.

His conclusions generated debate. Some argued he had no business expanding the stakes beyond the pipeline itself, or raising expectations about alternative economic futures. But he revised how Canadians viewed the North: no longer just a resource stash, it was also the home of its original inhabitants.

As important as Berger’s conclusions were, it was how he arrived at them that really shook conventional thinking. There was plenty of expert input: scientists from industry, governments and environmental organizations provided competing interpretations of the technical challenges and environmental complications involved in building a pipeline in permafrost, through caribou ranges, under streams and beside the Beaufort Sea. Industry experts tended to see the project as benign, while other scientists warned of great risks. These contradictions demonstrated that scientific advice reflects not just data, but wider commitments regarding values and priorities.

Berger also traveled widely. He visited every community in the region, giving anyone who wished it an opportunity to speak about the project’s impacts, its possibilities and its meaning for the land and for the people. More effectively than perhaps anyone before or since, he erased the divide between technical expertise and public knowledge. Along the way, a crucial insight became evident: people who live on the land can know more than scientists.

Moreover, Berger demonstrated that the best decision requires not just the right information, but the right process. In other words, better decisions and better projects demand democratic practice, an opening up of information and debates so that everyone can have their say. Berger showed that an inquiry could be an opportunity for innovation and learning, combining technocracy and democracy while showing that both are essential.

Ever since, the credibility of an environmental assessment has depended on not just expertise but on transparency and accountability. On countless occasions, the Berger Inquiry has been invoked as the model public process, sometimes in the most unlikely places. (Berger once visited a remote aboriginal settlement in Australia and found his hosts waving their copies of his report.)

Berger’s unusually broad and imaginative view of development was partly a product of his own political and philosophical commitments. He had learned, especially from Frank Scott, a distinguished Canadian legal and social scholar, of the potential of law as a force for social change, and the need to respect the rights and voices of minorities. Yet it also reflected the times. In the 1970s, Northern development was not just about the environment or energy policy. Everything seemed in play: Native rights, economic nationalism, the limits of technology, the idea of a conserver society, the relations among the public, industry and government. Today, we see a notion like sustainable development as a sign of willingness to ask big questions about the environment and economics, but by 1970s standards, our view is narrow indeed.

Yet understanding Berger’s legacy requires acknowledging two ironies. The first is that he was never supposed to have such an impact.When then prime minister Pierre Trudeau appointed him, Berger was expected to deliver what Ottawa wanted: a quick process and a rapid approval. Northern development was considered a national imperative, and industry and government were working closely, often secretively, on huge plans to bring oil and gas to southern markets. Officials resisted Berger’s plan to expand the inquiry. They obstructed participation by federal scientists, slashed stakeholder funding, and delayed release of internal reports. Following a classic bureaucratic script, they looked on Northern development as a technical problem to be solved, not an issue to be debated. Berger was a bad dream, something out of control, an experience not to be repeated.

The second irony is that Berger’s example has been more often cited than followed. The North is different today than it was in the 1970s. Land claims have been settled, and aboriginal priorities are at the centre of policy. Yet environmental assessments, such as those for diamond mines in the territories and in Northern Ontario, fail to fully consider aboriginal knowledge and values. Projects elsewhere – oil sands developments,Northern hydro dams, or highways in Vancouver (the Gateway Project) and Southern Ontario (the Highway 407 extension) – are still considered in isolation. Cumulative impacts are left unexamined, and participation is often limited to open houses – a peculiar form of consultation that sees public concerns as merely obstacles to be defused and discarded. Berger urged independent studies of the environmental impact of projects, yet the research is commonly conducted by consultants hired by the project promoters themselves – a blatant conflict of interest.

The Berger Inquiry was an anomaly, the product of the peculiar conditions of the early 1970s. Trudeau’s minority government got more than it bargained for when it hired a gutsy political idealist. The moment passed, but the bureaucracy of environmental administration remained. Berger wrote eloquently about development as a democratic process, yet the machine just keeps rolling on.

Stephen Bocking, a regular contributor to Alternatives, is professor at and chair of the Environmental and Resource Science/Studies Program at Trent University and author of A\J's EcoLogic blog.

You can follow Stephen on Twitter at @BockingStephen or read his blog: Environment, History and Science.

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