2004 Yukon Nuggets
In the tiny clapboard hospital in downtown Whitehorse, on July 12, 1920, a future Canadian icon came into the world. His mother, the now-famous Yukon school teacher, Laura Berton, delivered a healthy eight-pound boy and named him Pierre.
His childhood years were spent roaming the dilapidated streets and alleys of Dawson, where memories of the explosive Klondike Gold Rush still lingered like a fresh, though fading, flower.
He unknowingly soaked up the atmosphere of this defining moment in Canadian history. His teen years were spent working the diggings on Dominion Creek, where the mere sight of legendary Klondike gold would inspire his first and most important book of Canadian history.
Klondike - published in 1958 - was his first epic volume and would remain, until his death on November 20, 2004, at age 84, the most significant in a series of fifty important historical volumes.
The Berton family moved to Vancouver when Pierre was old enough to attend the University of British Columbia. He was a moderate scholar and said later he went to university only because they had a campus newspaper.
He became editor of that paper - The Ubbessy - and began a journalistic career which would lead to the editor's desk of the prestigious McLean's magazine in 1947, at the tender age of 27.
Moving to Ontario, he wrote a daily 1500-word column for the Toronto Star for four long years. His enterprising Star stories formed the basis of his coming books including the Comportable Pew, a tome attacking the Anglican church, and the Smug Minority in 1968, which railed against the cronyism between politics and big business. It gained him few friends on Bay Street, but many readers outside the corporate headquarters in Toronto.
In the 1970s, he continued work as a popular historian. The building of the CPR was told in the National Dream in 1970 and the Last Spike the following year. His wonderful tome, Hollywood's Canada in 1975 examines the way American films misrepresent Canada. The Dionne Years, published in 1977, showed he was versatile enough to write a real social history of the country.
He chronicled the country's early-day troubles with the United States in The Invasion of Canada in 1980 and Flames Across the Border, written in 1981.
Drifting Home, written in 1973, is an unexpected autobiography in the form of an account of a northern rafting trip with his family. It was during his publicity tour for this book that I met Berton for the first time in Montreal.
I was moderately in awe since he was not only by now a radio, television and book-writing icon, but a huge man whose size dwarfed mine. He barely fit in the front seat of my aging Chevelle as I drove him, in a torrential downpour, to his next studio interview.
During the 1980s, Berton continued writing popular history, with The Promised Land in 1984, a history of the settling of the Canadian West, and Vimy, an examination of the WW I battle in which tough Canadian troops took VIMY RIDGE in April, 1917.
His lasting contributions to the Yukon are many. Though often thought of as pompous - even unconcerned about the average person - his commitment to Berton House, for writers in Dawson, and his constant references to the Yukon, in almost every public setting, show that the man truly did care about his home and native land.
And for those who were certain he lacked any sense of humour, his final public appearance on CBC Television, teaching Canadians how to properly roll a joint of weed, should dispel that myth.
Pierre Berton, a Yukon and Canadian Idol had kept the good name of his birthplace in the public spotlight. For that alone, in the Yukon, he will be sorely missed.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.