It took three hard swings of the champagne bottle to break on the side of the old building. With this act, Pierre Berton signalled the completion of another heritage project in Dawson City – in this case, the restoration of the Yukon Hotel. It was one of many such projects that he championed over the years.
After the event, I spoke admiringly of Berton with an older a member of the community. With a snort of derision, he dismissed Berton using a phrase I heard repeated a number of times over the years: “Pierre Berton didn’t make the Klondike, the Klondike made Pierre Berton!” The words were hostile, expressing, I thought, a mixture of resentment and envy of a local boy who had made good.
As I read through the newly released biography titled Pierre Berton, A Biography, written by A.B. McKillop, published in 2008 by McClelland and Stewart, I came more firmly to the conclusion that the converse was the case. Pierre Berton was the product of his own making, and as Yukon’s most famous home-grown citizen, we owe him a hell of a lot.
McKillop’s biography runs to 791 pages, 681 of which are narrative text of Berton’s life, while the remainder consists of extensive endnotes and index. Thirty eight glossy black and white photographs span his life from childhood to old age. While the task of reading nearly 700 pages of text about one person may seem daunting, the writing is refreshingly energetic and well researched. The exhaustive detail of Berton’s life, in the end, reveals the full character of the man.
The book begins with his early family life, telling of his interesting father, a Klondike stampeder who stayed in the Yukon for most of the remainder of his life, and his mother, a school teacher. They were an unusual couple, and Dawson City was an unusual place; he was a university educated “engineer,” she an aspiring writer whose father had a distinguished career as a journalist and social activist.
They met, married, and a few years later, at an age when most other married couples had become grandparents, produced their only son, Pierre, followed by a daughter, Lucy.
McKillop traces Berton’s growth from childhood, to a student working in the goldfields outside Dawson City, while aspiring to a career as a journalist. In quick order, he became a cub reporter, then an editor for a major Vancouver newspaper.
Throughout his career, Berton was a man of boundless energy and ideas.
After writing a remarkable series of articles on his quest for the secret of the Headless Valley (Nahanni), he was offered a job with Maclean’s Magazine, followed later by another as a columnist with the Toronto Star. All the while, he was writing radio plays, magazine articles and short stories to augment his income and support his growing family.
He worked in the fledgling television business, and after a shaky start, took to it like a duck to water, appearing in a number of programs over the years, most notably Front Page Challenge (38 years) and The Pierre Berton Show. His capacity for work was astounding: on one occasion, he taped 16 episodes of The Pierre Berton Show in London England in just two days.
His acumen for writing is awe-inspiring. After extensive research on the subject, for example, he produced the first draft of his book The National Dream in just three and a half weeks.
These accomplishments would have been enough for the average career. But Berton was yet to establish himself in the field for which he is most well known to me, and I suspect to most other Canadians, as an author of Canadian history. Over a period of 50 years, he churned out 50 books, including arguably, his most charismatic works: Klondike, The National Dream, and The Last Spike.
During his career, he led us through some of the seminal events in Canadian history: the War of 1812, the search for the Northwest Passage, settlement of the Prairies, the First World War, the Great Depression and the Second World War.
In addition, he wrote works of social conscience (The Big Sell, The Smug Minority and the Comfortable Pew), introspection (Drifting Home), journalism (Just Add Water and Stir), photography (Klondike Quest, Winter, The Great Railway), cooking, children’s stories (The Secret World of Og), soft porn (Under the assumed name of Lisa Kroniuk) and Canadian identity (Hollywood’s Canada, Why we Act Like Canadians).
Berton was, to me, as to many other Canadians of my generation, the author most successful in articulating Canadian identity. Through his writing, he helped to forge a popular sense of what Canada was and how it came to be.
As a high school student, I learned that Canadian history wasn’t considered significant enough to dedicate much time to its study. What I and my contemporaries received was a recitation of dates and sterile facts. Berton made Canadian history come alive; he made us proud to be Canadians. More so through him than through the efforts of the Canadian academic community, we learned about Canada.
Berton was not well received by the academic community, though he earned the grudging acknowledgement and respect of historians, who seemed content to pen books and articles with a narrow readership, seemingly aimed at securing university tenure, rather than informing the public.
Prominent academic Jack Granatstein once conceded that Berton “was a good researcher,” but arrogantly complained that he “consciously (made) his work interesting.”
“Well, professor,” remarked Berton in his rebuttal, “I sure as hell don’t consciously make it dull.”
Berton also served as the conscience of the nation, raising awareness of the Steven Truscott Case, for example, and stating that he would not turn his daughter from the door should she come home pregnant. By these and many other commentaries, Berton poked a stick in the complacent Canadian ant pile and stirred it up.
McKillop’s book addresses these aspects of Berton’s complex and remarkable personality in extensively researched detail, including his relationship with his father, his dalliances, and his transformation from personality to icon, to brand name. He probes topics that Berton passed over lightly or not at all in his autobiography.
I knew Berton mostly through his fascinating historical work, and as an advocate for Dawson City’s remarkable heritage. Yet these were only two of the many facets of his extraordinary career. If it achieves one thing, I think McKillop’s biography will reveal to the many Canadians who knew him for one thing or another that he was a man of many talents and many accomplishments.
Readers will enjoy the story of how this Yukoner came to mean so much to Canadians, and to Canada. It is an excellent read and I recommend it.
Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.