Verna Kirkness: Thomas Berger was ‘key’ to making UBC more accessible to Indigenous peoples

Verna Kirkness: “Tom was both my friend and mentor.”
Photo provided by Verna Kirkness

In remembrance of Thomas Berger, who passed away on April 28, 2021.

Tom was both my friend and mentor.

While much of his life centered around law, he had a wider interest and for me his interest in the education of Indigenous people was a great bonus to my work at UBC.

I arrived at UBC as the director of the Native Indian Teacher Education Program in 1981. I met him almost immediately through his wife, Bev, who was the NITEP Coordinator at the time. All that existed at the time that targeted Indigenous students was the Law Program and NITEP. As we sat and visited one day, he said that more should be happening at UBC to promote access and to support Indigenous people and their communities. This led us to meet with then President George Pedersen. He agreed and he struck a committee co-chaired by Tom and me.

The committee consisted of faculty members and Indigenous community members. In a short time we delivered a report to the president who agreed with the recommendations on how best to have the university serve the students and communities in BC. However, it was a time of fiscal restraint and monies were not available to pursue the recommendation.

A year or more later, Dr. Strangway became UBC president and the fiscal situation had changed. Tom suggested he send a letter to Dr. Strangway advising him about the report before he even arrived here. To our surprise he arranged to have me meet with him at his office the Friday of his first week. At the meeting he spoke of the report and asked if it was a direction we still wished to take. I answered in the affirmative and told him some seed money was promised by the Donner Canadian Foundation if we were to pursue this. His response: “Well go for it”.

We formed an advisory committee with Tom as the chair. A concept known as the First Nations House of Learning was the result. Its primary goal was to work with the university as a whole to provide access and to support Indigenous students.

Today, we witness at graduation time, students graduating from many different faculties resulting in expertise to assist our communities on the road to self government. Tom was the key to this movement.

This is probably just one of the stories of Tom’s influence that is not widely known.

His work is done. May he rest in peace.

Verna Kirkness is the founding director of the First Nations House of Learning at UBC, serving from 1987 to 1993. During this time, she led a successful fundraising campaign to build the First Nations Longhouse, an important gathering place for Indigenous students. The Longhouse opened in 1993.