Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Thomas Berger, 1933-2021

May 2, 2021

The first time I met Tom Berger, who died this past week, age 88, was in 2005 when we sat together on a panel of "experts" convened by the Globe and Mail to determine the "top" British Columbians of all time. It is the only time my level of expertise has ever been equated with Justice Berger's.

Actually he was unaware that our paths had crossed, sort of, 35 years earlier. It was the provincial election of 1969, my first time as a voter and his first as leader of the provincial NDP. He was the first politician I ever knocked on doors for so you could say we both lost when Socred Premier W.A.C. Bennett trounced him at the polls.

That was the end of Justice Berger's political career, which was probably a good thing for him and especially for the rest of us since he went on to have such an influential career as a jurist, particularly in the area of indigenous rights.

I last spoke to him a couple of years ago at a fund-raising dinner for a religious college. I was there because he was the guest speaker and I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to listen to him. His subject was the 1869-70 Red River Rebellion and as he began I looked around the room wondering if he had misjudged his audience. Wasn't the subject a little esoteric? But of course I was wrong. The subject was the sorry history of injustice in the country and, it turned out, his own role in a particularly long and tortuous legal case that had arisen out of the rebellion. By the time he was well launched, talking in his easy manner without notes, everyone in the room was rivetted. It was the best after-dinner speech I have ever heard.

I'm pretty sure if someone today tried to come up with a selection of "top" British Columbians, Justice Berger would be sitting at the head of the list.