Online resource captures significance of Berger Inquiry

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The shift: Students get firsthand look at historic moment

In the 1970s, the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry was held in response to a proposed pipeline that would cut through several northern communities in Canada. The inquiry was the first of its kind to emphasize public participation and consultation of environmental and Aboriginal groups. Years later, Allard School of Law Professor Michael Jackson, who served as special counsel on the inquiry, didn’t want this seminal moment in Canadian history to be forgotten. Together with Drew Ann Wake, who covered the inquiry for the CBC, Jackson created an interactive website for students to learn about this precedent-setting case.

The inquiry

Following the discovery of a large pool of oil in Alaska in the late 1960s and early 1970s, oil and gas exploration flourished in the Canadian north. In 1974, pipeline companies applied to the Canadian government to build a pipeline down the Mackenzie Valley. The proposed pipeline would cross several Aboriginal communities.

In 1974, the federal government appointed Justice Thomas Berger of the Supreme Court of British Columbia to lead the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, also known as the Berger Inquiry. Justice Berger was appointed to determine the social, economic, and environmental consequences of the proposed pipeline. For the first time, environmental and Aboriginal organizations received government funding to present their own expert witnesses at the formal hearings.

“What the inquiry decided to do early on,” Jackson explained, “was to take the hearing to the people in their own communities and allow them to express their views on what they thought about this huge pipeline project.”

Jackson organized hearings in over 30 Dene, Inuit, and non-Aboriginal communities across the Northwest Territories. To gain an in-depth understanding of how the pipeline would affect the communities, Jackson was invited to live amongst the Dene, as a representative of Justice Berger. Jackson helped the communities prepare for the hearings. He also took photos, and even though he was not the official inquiry photographer, Jackson captured over 1,000 photos throughout the hearings.

The project

Jackson’s photos, along with audio tapes Wake had recorded during her time reporting on the inquiry, formed the basis for their Berger Inquiry project, which explores the importance of the inquiry.

To gather further resources, Jackson and Wake revisited the communities that had taken part in the hearings. They photographed the members who had participated in the inquiry, invited younger community members to share stories from their elders, and they asked people who gave speeches during the inquiry to read their speeches again.

Together with the tapes, photos, and the resources they collected when revisiting the communities, Jackson and Wake created a travelling exhibit for students and the public to learn about the inquiry.

The exhibit was brought to UBC in 2012, after Wake connected with Amy Perreault, Strategist for Indigenous Initiatives at the UBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. In the two-week period the exhibit was at the UBC law school, over 400 students, across all disciplines, visited the space.

The exhibit was a success, but securing exhibit space proved difficult, so the team aimed to find a new way to continue sharing the resources.

From physical to digital

Perreault noted, “The conversations were so rich that we needed to find a way to keep this momentum going and give students the opportunity to learn both inside and outside of the classroom and in the ways that the exhibit had facilitated.” The team applied for flexible learning funding to create an open access lecture series and online resource with interactive media that explores the Berger Inquiry.

The website, launched in 2014, includes interviews with key figures from the inquiry. Jackson, Justice Berger, members of Parliament, Aboriginal leaders, and lawyers representing the pipeline companies and environmental organizations, share their experiences and perspectives through video interviews. Students can also complete quizzes, testing the knowledge they’ve learned. The aim is for students to hear from different sides of the inquiry and put themselves in Justice Berger’s chair to decide what the best course of action would be.

“We wanted to make the scrapbooks come to life, through video interviews, in addition to animations and quizzes,” Perreault explained. “It’s really structured in an interactive way for students to learn.”

Teaching strategies

Blended learning

The website incorporates interactive multimedia elements, which the team found was a better way to engage students. When the website was piloted in a law class and a First Nations Studies class, students were assigned pre-readings, which many did not complete; however, when asked to watch a video before coming to class, students often came prepared.

The videos were also a unique way for students to learn about the inquiry directly from those that had been there. Perreault noted that students appreciated hearing perspectives from Aboriginal people themselves, rather than their perspectives written by someone else.

“People engage when they hear something through personal story and experience,” Jackson added. “In talking about the environment, Indigenous peoples, and the role of large scale development—they have to be understood through the experience of individual people.”

Open learning

Jackson discussed the importance of making a publically available website and having a resource open to everyone, given the subject material.

“It’s part of history that is otherwise inaccessible,” he said. “The north is only very imperfectly reflected, and this was a key window into the north, which really has not since been shown or seen.”

Jackson also noted that in addition to being a resource for students and other learners, Aboriginal communities and schools in those communities have also utilized the website. “We’ve shared it with the communities in the north, and it’s become a resource for their community,” Jackson said.

The impact

Perreault sees the project as a way for students to engage with Indigenous issues in a meaningful way. “This project provides students with the consultation process that respects Indigenous peoples voices, perspectives, and really creates a space for them to be active participants in the process,” she stated.

Jackson hopes that this project will not only allow students to learn about an important moment in Canadian history, but also inspire them.

“[It’s] good to engage [students] with the faces and the voices of people who, when they spoke, were their age. Many of the voices were from young Métis, Dene and Inuvialuit people who were in their twenties. To realize that the people of your generation have shaped history, I think, is invigorating,” he said. Jackson added that the issues raised in the inquiry still have contemporary relevance.

What’s next

The team is now in the process of creating more resources, enhancing current resources, and examining new ways to engage with students and learners. Their next goal is to create resources that would allow students to learn about individual hearings.

Jackson is continuing to use the resource in his law classes; currently, all first year students explore the website as part of their constitutional law course, and the resource is also used in a number of advanced courses on Indigenous rights.

Outside of UBC, Wake is in talks with many northern schools, who are excited to learn more about the history of their communities and incorporate this history into their curriculum. Her ultimate goal is for the website to be used in every high school and university in Canada. She hopes that by introducing more people to the inquiry, the lessons learned will act as a “definitive approach to how we can make big national decisions in a sensitive and socially responsible way.”

Perreault is continuing to meet with faculty to see how these materials interact with their teaching, with the goal to get more faculty to use the resource in their courses. “People are aware that there are gaps in the curriculum with Indigenous issues,” Perreault said. “They want to do something, but they don’t necessarily have the ready-made resources that can do that. This is a way to do it more fluidly. This can be tailored to what they’re already learning, which makes it more meaningful.”

The instructor

Michael Jackson specializes in the areas of prisoner rights and Aboriginal rights. His courses on these topics were the first to be introduced in a Canadian law school. Jackson is a member of the bar of British Columbia and has represented prisoners and First Nations in landmark cases before the Supreme Court of Canada. In 1999, he was appointed Queen’s Counsel by the Attorney General of British Columbia.