Fred Berger, pioneering NDPer, dies at 76

There weren't many social democrats in the Yukon when Fred Berger moved here in 1955. His ideals of social justice and equality were often at odds with the cultural norms in an era when overt anti-First Nations comments we

There weren’t many social democrats in the Yukon when Fred Berger moved here in 1955.

His ideals of social justice and equality were often at odds with the cultural norms in an era when overt anti-First Nations comments were not uncommon – even by political figures.

“Fred always had an open heart and an open hand to people, especially First Nations people,” said friend Byrun Shandler.

It was also an era when Yukon party politics was purely a struggle between Progressive Conservative and Liberal. Berger, along with other NDP trailblazers like Tony Penikett, led the charge to wedge their NDP into the political mainstream.

Berger would lead the way, when, in 1974, he became one of the party’s first MLAs.

Four years later, in the first election where elected candidates would receive real legislative power, Berger, who was NDP leader, was unseated by Conservative Margaret McCall. She edged into the lead by only 22 votes.

Progressive Conservative leader Hilda Watson received a similar fate when she also lost her seat.

Berger’s days as an NDP public face were over, and he soon handed leadership reins over to Penikett, who led the party to territorial leadership only seven years later.

Berger remained a critical “behind the scenes” NDPer for decades, grooming generations of future NDP MLAs and premiers, and always keeping members focused on the central values of the party.

“He was always a voice at general meetings, reminding us of what our role should be and where the party had come from,” said Art Webster, the Klondike’s NDP MLA from 1985 to 1989.

When NDPers lost sight of their core values, Berger was usually the first to get them on the phone.

“He chewed me out a couple of times, when it was well-deserved,” said Webster.

“He took the time to tell me the error of my ways – and he was always right,” he said.

“He was very patient with us, and helpful in expressing what he thought was the right thing to do,” said former NDP premier Piers McDonald.

Berger’s core political beliefs extended back to his birthplace of Vienna, Austria, where his father maintained an affiliation with the social democrats even after the Nazi takeover, said friend and former Yukon premier Tony Penikett.

“Fred never lacked for a voice, and he never lacked for telling the truth,” said Shandler.

Living in a small town, Berger’s “committed” political beliefs were often hard to maintain.

“He never was really any part of the power or the elites; they didn’t like his criticism and his forcefulness and his speaking up for those who didn’t have much, or those who didn’t have the ability to speak up for themselves,” said Shandler.

As a businessman, Berger retained the entrepreneurial sensibilities of any successful northerner.

“Whatever your training, you end up doing something very different in order to put bread on the table,” said Penikett.

Berger’s varied business pursuits included placer mining, drug store proprietorship and ownership of the town’s legendary Orpheum Theatre.

“This was the quintessential ‘small town’ movie theatre, complete with lobby, snack bar and sloped seating area with red velour upholstered fold-down seats,” wrote Dawson City Mayor John Steins.

Mother Nature seemed to resent Berger’s ventures.

In 1979, the Orpheum was destroyed by a flood caused by heavy ice jams.

Disaster compensation flowed into the town, but somehow overlooked the Orpheum, whose doors remained closed. Its destroyed velvet seats were carried off to the dump.

In 1997, Berger’s Arctic Drugs was gutted by fire.

Lengthy battles with insurance companies followed the Arctic Drugs fire, with “fair compensation” proving to be elusive for the exasperated Berger.

“He never saw people by the dollar they had in their pocket, it was more by their need,” said Shandler.

“So it was difficult for him to accept the fact that something that you really needed help with, that insurance companies would be so fundamentally negative,” he said.

Berger never lost his focus on politics.

Even when his health was failing during the last few months of his life, he and Penikett maintained vigorous e-mail discussions about the Porcupine caribou herd and the war in Gaza.

In the deepest political discussions Berger would sometimes break his stoic political veneer and briefly let out his sense of humour, said Webster.

The tactic was surprising – and often disarming, he said.

“We’ll miss his solidarity, and his strength and his commitment,” said Penikett.

Fred Berger is survived by his wife Palma and son Tony.

Contact Tristin Hopper at