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Pierre Berton (1920-2004): A Canadian Legend
By Diego X. Jesus and Mark London
January, 2005, 01:34

Whether hosting Front Page Challenge, nosing through history or backing writers, Pierre Berton was the bomb.
is was an inauspicious start to a famously influential writing career.

And yet Pierre Berton went on to represent, we feel, all that is good about Canada -- the passion of her populace, her superb education system, her welcoming immigration policies, her inability to hurt anybody militarily and a knack for being in the right place at the right time to host some of the rarest cultural events in history.

For his part, Berton began working in Klondike mining camps at a very early age, then spent fours years in the Canadian Military and the Royal Military College of Canada working his way up from private to captain.

For all intents and purposes Berton was destined to either a life of blue collar labour or a career in the military, with an early retirement, as a full blown general or colonel. Instead, he shot off on a tangent that presented the world with one of the most intelligent and insightful journalistic minds of the 20th century.

By the time he was only 21 years old, he was the youngest city editor on any Canadian daily newspaper. Then in 1957, 10 years later at the age of 31, he became an integral member of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's flagship public affairs program, Close-Up, and at the same time landed a permanent position as a panelist on Canadian television's Front Page Challenge -- one that IN has modified with the Internet in mind and taken as it's credo.

A year later, in 1958, he joined The Toronto Star as associate editor and columnist and spent four years with that highly respected daily newspaper, before moving on in 1962 to host his own show on Canadian national TV, The Pierre Berton Show.

For the next 11 years he graced viewers with hard hitting, in-depth television interviews and newspaper articles. He appeared on My Country, The Great Debate, Heritage Theatre and The Secret of My Success.

His list of literary, television and academic awards and nominations are extensive but include three Governor General's Awards, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, the Canadian Booksellers Award and numerous honorary degrees, as well as a companion of the Order of Canada.

To us, he was a symbol of what a young writer can accomplish, the ability to keep developing a long, solid and productive career and keep it going. And he proved one of our own beliefs that you're never too old (or too young) to tell your stories -- to, indeed, write.

Pierre Berton devoted his life and story-telling skills to making Canadian history come back to life and flourish in the minds of millions. Over the past 50 years, when everyone was looking to the future, he was absorbed in the past, presenting historical segments of this nation in a way that reminded us that as much as the future is important, the past is a place we could learn from whence and where we have come, and, subsequently, where we are going.

During the 2004 Pierre Berton Award ceremony, Jack Granatstein noted that the history of Canada cannot be left to Pierre Berton alone. This year marks the coming of a future without Pierre Berton to write the history of our nation. Someone must pick up that torch, and IN vows to be a part of helping those who are qualified do just that.

Generous Support

Throughout his life and career, Berton was at his most generous when helping and supporting young, new writers. He offered free advice, and became a mentor to many who have taken heed of his guidance to launch successful writing careers.

His willingness to financially support the creative development of young writers was underscored with the belief that we as a society should "just let them write." To illustrate his profound dedication to education, he offered a Writer's in Residence program at the Pierre Berton House in Dawson City, Yukon, which is still running to this day.

He did everything he could during his lifetime to ensure that a whole new generation of writers would emerge to continue supplying the world with writing that is worthy of his tradition, and his legacy.

His first important book was Klondike (1958), a narrative of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. He then went on to publish The Comfortable Pew (1965) and The Smug Minority (1968), The National Dream (1970) and The Last Spike (1971).

Pierre Berton's main writing strengths were drawn from his intense Canadian patriotism, his attention to sharp, colourful detail and a knack for a driving and riveting narrative.

Following the success of his prior historical writings, he then produced The Dionne Years (1977), The Invasion Of Canada (1980), Flames Across The Border (1981), My Country (1976), The Wild Frontier (1978), Hollywood's Canada (1975).  

Drifting Home (1973), took him away from a national perspective to take a good long look into his own life in an unexpected account of a rafting trip in Northern Canada.

Winter (1994) continued to provide the world with glimpses into what it is to be Canadian, appreciating the harshness and beauty of the four distinct Canadian seasons.

Returning to his one true love of history writing, he released The Promised Land (1984), Vimy (1986), then returned to self-examination with Starting Out (1987) and 1967 (1998).

In 2004 he published his 50th book, Pioneers of the North, completing a bibliography unsurpassed in Canadian letters.

For IN and its readers, Berton's was a life and a career to aspire to. His unselfishness and his prolific pen combined to go a very long way on the road to putting Canada on the world-wide literary stage.

IN salutes Pierre Berton, and celebrates his life of letters.IN Icon

Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be. email Jesus

Mark London is a Toronto based writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l since the very early days of it's existence and volunteers much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. email London


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