Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton was a historian, journalist, raconteur and television personality (Credit: Shutterstock)

By Thomas Rogers

If it weren’t for Pierre Berton, far fewer Canadians would know the legend of Sam Steele, Canada’s most famous Mountie and probably the world’s most cartoonishly Canadian person. From 1898 to 1899, Steele was commissioner for the Yukon, as thousands of men and women from around the world streamed into the Klondike in search of fortune. The Canadian Mounties were determined that, unlike the American gold rushes, the Canadian one was to be an orderly affair. Steele was the “prototype of the Hollywood Mountie,” Berton wrote – tall, “erect as a pine tree, limber as a cat” and so good at his job that “you could lay a sack of nuggets on the side of the trail and return in two weeks to find it untouched.”

The seminal Sam Steele moment, as described in Berton’s book Klondike, took place on Lake Bennett, where Steele heard a man’s gun go off suspiciously outside his cabin. When he searched the belongings of the American culprit, he found a shell game and monte cards – both banned in the Yukon. “I’m an American citizen,” the man protested. “The Secretary of State himself shall hear about it.” Steele answered that, seeing as the man was an American citizen, he would be lenient, “I’ll confiscate everything you have and give you half an hour to leave town.” The man was chased back across the US border for 22 miles with a Mountie at his heels. (The episode was dramatised in one of the Heritage Minutes that aired on Canadian TV in the ‘90s.)

Berton’s Klondike remains one of the most popular and entertaining works of Canadian history ever written. Over the course of his 40-year career, Berton published 50 books, mostly about Canadian history, including a series of books called Canadian History for Children. He was so popular in Canada that he once had three books on the bestseller list at the same time. In the process, he has probably done more to shape Canadian society’s understanding of itself than anyone else. For Canadians, whose anxiety about their national identity can sometimes border on the obsessive, Berton has provided an invaluable service: he told the Canadian narrative for a mass audience, and in the process, helped create formative national myths. It’s fitting that Berton is credited with the most widely known and succinct definition of Canadian identity: “A Canadian is someone who knows how to have sex in a canoe.”

Born in 1920 in Dawson City – a Yukon settlement created during the Klondike Gold Rush – Berton focused much of his early writing on his hometown. While studying at the University of British Columbia, he would moonlight on weekends in Klondike mining camps. After Klondike, which was published in 1954, he wrote books about Toronto, the Canadian railways and, most famously, about the War of 1812. In his early thirties, Berton became an editor at Maclean’s, Canada’s most influential news magazine, and by the early 1960s, hosted a regular talk show on Canadian television, where he conducted the only interview Bruce Lee gave on TV. His public persona was relentlessly jovial, polite and mellow – in short, stereotypically Canadian – though his appeal may have been enhanced by the fact that he was also a dedicated stoner. (In 2002, two years before his death, he appeared on a Canadian TV show to teach Canadians how to roll a proper joint.)

As any Canadian history teacher will tell you, making Canadian history exciting is no easy feat, largely because of its lack of conflict. Berton once wrote that Canadians are less inclined to confrontation than Americans because “it is awkward to reach efficiently for a six-gun while wearing a parka and two pairs of mittens.” Canada is the only country in all of the Americas to have gained independence completely without violence, our founders having preferred a more incremental strategy: While France and the Americans had their revolutions, Canada had the Charlottetown Conference, a meeting with a champagne lunch that eventually led the Queen to acquiesce to the unification of several provinces and independent Canadian control of some aspects of government – but not its judiciary, foreign policy or constitution. It’s not the kind of story that sees eight-year-olds bouncing off the walls.

The modesty of Canadian history – the most decisive battle in the War of 1812 had 2% as many casualties as the Napoleonic Wars’ Battle of Borodino two years earlier – means that Canadian historians have to focus on relatively small stories, and Berton was particularly adept at pinpointing its most fascinating characters. In The Promised Land, his history of the settlement of the Canadian West, for example, he wrote about Isaac Barr, a British huckster who convinced scores of gullible British immigrants to establish a “British-only” utopian settlement named Britannia on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan by advertising its “invigorating and enjoyable climate.” When the unprepared arrivals became stuck on the road during a nightmarish trip to the town, they were rescued by a minister named Lloyd. This, in turn, inspired them to rename the settlement Lloydminster, now a major town in the prairies.

Later on in the same book, Berton describes how a Russian immigrant named Zibarov formed a Christian sect in northern Saskatchewan, known as the Sons of God, within the Russian Doukhobor community and encouraged his thousands of followers to give up their cattle and shoes and embark on a freezing march to a “warmer climate where we could live on fruit.” When they approached the US border a Mountie threw Zibarov on a train car headed back north, before herding the rest of his entourage onboard. (In later decades, the group became known for staging protests that combined nudity and arson).

Four years ago, the Canadian government tried to take advantage of Canadians’ muddled knowledge of their own history by attempting to spin the War of 1812, a strange and largely forgotten conflict between the UK and the US that played out along the Canadian border, as a war of American aggression. But in Berton’s telling, the War of 1812 is a near-comic tragedy: a planned American attack on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, for instance, was called off when an American soldier went missing with all of the boats’ oars. Berton also made it clear that, even 200 years later, it’s difficult to pinpoint what caused the war in the first place.

Berton said in 2002 that he “had never set out to be a patriot or a popular historian,” but, if that’s truly the case, his books have crafted the widely accepted popular narrative of Canadian history by accident. In his telling, the Canadian nation was shaped primarily by two forces: Canadians’ deference to authority and their fear of nature. Unlike the US’ westward expansion, and to the relief of most settlers, the colonisation of the Canadian West was conducted under the aegis of the Canadian Mounties. The Mountie, most evocatively embodied by Sam Steele, was so beloved because he represents a “father figure in a nation that adores father figures.” Berton may never have wanted to become a popular historian, but he knew how to tell the story that the Canadian public needed, and wanted, to hear – a story that remains as relevant as ever.

With his booming voice, towering stature and trademark bow tie, Pierre Berton was one of Canada's best-known personalities. The prolific author, who died at age 84 on Nov. 30, 2004, wrote bestsellers about Canadian history, from The Mysterious North in 1956 to Prisoners of the North in 2004. He was also a journalist, broadcaster and panellist on CBC's long-running news quiz show Front Page Challenge.

Learn more about him and watch a video about him on the CBC at http://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/pierre-berton-canadian-icon-and-iconoclast

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