Pierre Berton was, for many years, Dawson’s best-known export and Canada’s best-known media face, better known even than Don Cherry.
Having majored in the university newspaper at UBC, Berton went on to become a star reporter in Vancouver, an editor at Maclean’s magazine in Toronto, a daily columnist for the Toronto Star, a daily radio commentator in that city, one of the four faces of the country’s longest running current events quiz show, Front Page Challenge, and the author of one of Canada’s best children’s books, The Secret World of Og.
For our purposes, however, it is most important to note that he was, in his own phrase, a prisoner of the North.
He lived here for the first 12 years of his life, came back to earn his living while he was in college, returned several times early in his career as a reporter, and earned his first Governor General’s Award forKlondike, the book that jump started our Gold-Rush-based tourism industry (Klondike Fever, if you’re from the US).
Historian Brian Mckillop, who wrote Berton’s excellent unauthorized biography, Pierre Berton: A Biography, put it all together for me a few summers ago when he was researching Berton’s life here.
Berton, he said, was a pioneer in Canadian mass culture, who had been first in our country with almost everything that we now take for granted.
Documentaries that use photographs to tell stories on the History channel look like Berton’s film, City of Gold; intelligent TV talk shows look and sound like the Pierre Berton Show; Rick Mercer’s rants owe something to the radio debates he used to have every day with Charles Templeton; and those Canadian History TV spots are shorter versions of his attempts to dramatize our past.
The ever-growing stack of Canadian popular history books is a tribute to the success of his own stack.
Berton wrote over 50 books, and 27 of them make reference to Dawson City or the Canadian North in some fashion.
His last book, a collection of profiles of famous people who lived and worked in the North, included two who made their names here, Klondike Joe Boyle and that Service fellow who lived across the street from Berton’s home.
Since 1996, his own home has played host to 51 writers-in-residence. It started slowly as a spring- and summer-only affair, but is now a year-round residence, with four writers each taking three months. Numerous books have been produced here.
Last week, Frances Backhouse came to town for the Yukon launch of her new Children of the Klondike.
Charlotte Gray is coming to do the same thing with her book, Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike, in September.
Lynda Goyette will return here to launch Northern Kids in the same month and Mylène Gilbert-Dumas has just received a Canada Council grant to work on her book about contemporary Klondike women.
For all his success in every medium he tackled, books were Berton’s first and greatest love, and it was his idea, encouraged by his friends and contacts here, to buy back the family home and make it into a writers’ retreat.
It has gone through several phases since the early 1990s, when he first made the purchase, but it is now managed by the Writers Trust of Canada with some assistance from the Dawson Community Library Board and the Klondike Visitors Association.
Pierre Berton died in December, 2004, but his legacy lives on in the house where he grew up.
After 32 years teaching in rural Yukon schools, Dan Davidson retired from that profession but continues writing about life in Dawson City.