05/21/2014 10:14 EDT | Updated 07/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Landmark pipeline inquiry sparks interest 40 years later

Almost forty years ago, an inquiry led by Justice Thomas Berger put the world's largest engineering project - a natural gas pipeline from Alaska, down the Mackenzie Valley, to Chicago - on hold. 

This week a hands-on history exhibition about the Berger Inquiry will tour communities of the Yukon. It arrives just as two First Nations and two environmental organizations prepare to sue the Yukon government over its failure to protect the sensitive Peel River watershed. 

Their legal counsel is the same Thomas Berger, now the elder statesman of Canadian aboriginal rights lawyers. 

Forty years ago, I was a junior CBC reporter assigned to follow Justice Berger as he took the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry to 30 Dene and Inuvialuit villages across the Northwest Territories.

Five years ago, I found a cache of old photos and audio tapes from the era and decided to build a travelling exhibition.

Some of my friends scoffed. "Why should we care about an event that happened forty years ago?" But I thought it was important to commemorate a unique historical moment when a handful of young aboriginal activists stopped the largest construction project in North America in its tracks.

Together with photographer Linda MacCannell, I decided to travel to communities that had hosted Judge Berger almost forty years before, to see if residents were interested in hearing the voices from the past. 

The first community we visited was Nahanni Butte. We were offered the school for our presentation but the principal warned: "Possibly no one will show up."

That evening we walked to the school, prepared to confront an empty classroom. But we found the building surrounded by all-terrain vehicles. The elders had asked their children and grandchildren to drive them to the school so they could relive a great moment in Dene history.

The elders took over the event. When they switched the discussion from English to the Dehcho Dene language, we knew we had touched a chord.

Over the next five summers we took the exhibition to 25 communities along the Mackenzie River, from the B.C. border to the Beaufort Sea. We travelled in scows, in float planes and in trucks. We held impromptu exhibitions in airports, parking lots and — once — in a hockey arena. 

This week the exhibition will visit the Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nations. Both believe that the Yukon government has betrayed promises that were made during the negotiation of their Umbrella Final Agreement, signed twenty years ago. 

Despite the agreement, and a seven-year process of public consultation, the Government of Yukon has adopted its own unilateral plan for the Peel, which opens up most of the watershed to roads and industrial development. So the two First Nations have joined forces with the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society and the Yukon Conservation Society to sue the Yukon government.

At the press conference announcing the lawsuit, Chief Eddie Taylor pointed out that his people accept the role of the mining industry in the Yukon. Indeed, many Tr'ondek Hwech'in people work as miners. 

"However," Chief Taylor said, "we do not want to see mining in the Peel. To us that land and water is sacred and should be preserved for future generations. As our elders say, the Peel is our church and our university and our breadbasket."

His remarks echo a sentiment that was expressed when Judge Berger held a hearing in the community of Aklavik almost forty years ago. Jim Sittichinli, an elder who was the CBC's Gwich'in language reporter, was one of the first to speak. 

"The other day I was taking a walk," he told the Judge. "I passed a house there with a dog tied outside. I didn't notice it, and all of a sudden this dog jumped up and gave me a big bark. 

I was saying to myself: 'Well, that dog taught me a lesson. The native people, they are tied down too much by the government. We never go and bark, therefore nobody takes notice of us. It is about time that that we the people of this north land should get up and bark.'"

It seems that two Yukon First Nations are taking Jim Sittichinli's advice.