Back
Canadian icon
Dec 03, 2004

The man who popularized Canadian history died in Toronto at 84 this week.

Pierre Berton did more for Canadian history than any of the nation’s top academic historians simply because he made the story of our nation accessible to all. Because of this,  tens of thousands of Berton books can be found in Canadian households.

Even most of those who have not read a Berton book are familiar with the author. They may have watched him on Front Page Challenge (he was on this show for 38 years) or The Pierre Berton Show, read something by him in MacLean’s or any of the numerous newspapers he contributed to as editor, reporter and columnist. 

Whenever Berton was in town to launch another of his books — he wrote 50 — local radio and television stations lined up wanting him to appear as a guest. He was a Canadian icon in great demand for his insights into what makes the nation tick.

History boring? Not when it was written by Berton. A masterful storyteller, he actually made Canadian history exciting. 

Who would have thought building a national railway was the stuff of dreams, intrigue, political scandal and forceful personalities as well as villains. Well, Berton told us that was the case, and we bought his many books on the construction of the CPR’s trans-Canada railway because he was able to craft stories and events into a tableau that wasn’t fraught with scholarly complexity. He made Canadian history simple to read, although the subjects he tackled could invariably be shaded in differing tints of interpretation. But, he wasn’t writing academic tomes, he was writing for an audience who in high school often considered history as one of the most dreadful subjects inflicted upon mankind.

It was Berton who told us that Canadians could dare to believe in themselves. The National Dream and Last Spike told their readers that an apparent “act of insane recklessness” in a nation with only 3.5-million people became a reality because Canadians and the political leaders such as John A. Macdonald had an inner strength which defied the forces of adversity — no inferiority complexes were found in the mix. “We need our heroes, we need our legends,” he once said.

Whenever he came to town, Berton revealed a grasp of local history and enthralled his audiences with tales of their own heritage. He professed to having a great interest in Winnipeg historically, because it was the starting point of the West, and it was where “the CPR was telegraphed out from a single point,” he told the Manitoba Historical Society 

during a 1975 visit. 

Berton also called it scandalous and an act of vandalism that the “Gingerbread House,” this city’s second city hall, was demolished to make way for a new complex. This is a sentiment expressed to this day by some long-time Winnipeg residents.“A city should tell something about the people who came before,” he said, decrying the practice of tearing down symbols and replacing them with edifices of steel, concrete and glass — shiny new buildings without a soul that have razed the past to make way for so-called progress.

The man who described a Canadian as “someone who could make love in a canoe,” possessed a tinge of sentimentality, which is something that can be found in the pages of his books. Other evidence of this sentimentality is shown by his use of the title 1967:The Last Good Year for a book released 20 years later.

“The country was in love with itself,” he told Brian Gorman of the Ottawa Sun as justification for the title.

Anyone who lived through 1967, Canada’s centennial year, would readily agree. It was a time when everyone sang the lyrics of Bobby Jimby’s syrup-laden song Can-Ah-Dah without 

embarrassment, simply because we were all in a state of self-induced euphoria. It took Berton to explain to another generation that 1967 was a time when Canadians fell in love with the concept of Canada and had a “chance to blow off steam.”

Berton introduced Canadians to their own history by clothing it in the guise of entertainment. This may have been dismissed as frivolous misuse of history in the hallowed halls of academia, but without this approach Canadian history would be  relegated to collecting dust on some forgotten shelf of anonymity. He gave Canadian history a heartbeat, resurrecting it as a collective experience.

He was so successful in pursuit of accessibility that even university-trained historians are following his example and are now writing for the many instead of the few.

Historian Jack Granatstein was among those who were often critical of Berton. This is ironic since the military historian was this year’s winner of the $10,000 Pierre Berton Award for popular history presented by the National Historical Society. 

Granatstein admitted to the Globe and Mail that Berton wrote on good subjects and presented them in such a way that people wanted to buy his books. 

That makes a lot of sense. Why write on some obscure subject so that only a few would ever consider it interesting.

It was Berton who admitted to not 

being an historian, but a teller of historical tales. For this, Canadians can be thankful.