Paul St. Pierre was one of our finest storytellers, a yarn spinner at his best describing wry country characters of independence, dry humour and horse sense.
A prolific writer, he wrote newspaper columns for many years, while also producing novels, short stories and juvenile fiction, as well as scripts for stage and television, including the popular Cariboo Country drama series.
He found his inspiration among the cowboys, natives and townsfolk of the dusty Cariboo-Chilcotin country of British Columbia’s vast, underpopulated central Interior. It would have been an improbable twist to his own fiction that he would represent his beloved territory in the House of Commons, as he did for four years.
A freewheeling lover of adventure, Mr. St. Pierre, who died at the age of 90, could have sprung from one of his own stories. A husky man who spoke with deliberation, he considered himself as much an individualist as any of his characters. He once greeted a reporter in his parliamentary office by pouring amber shots of Walker’s Special Old into china tea cups with a growled toast: “Here’s to slow horses, fast women, gravel roads and cheaper whisky.” By 1970, he no longer sported a trademark crew-cut flattop, growing his hair long and framing a craggy visage with mutton-chop sideburns that would not have been out of place on a Father of Confederation. With each passing year, he looked more like an Old Testament prophet, an appropriate style for someone who wrote jeremiads against government intrusion into everyday life.
It might surprise his many fans that this great chronicler of the Cariboo, whose works were imbued with the hardy spirit of life in rural British Columbia, was raised in the Maritimes and born in Chicago on Oct. 14, 1923.
Harold Paul St. Pierre was an only child for Pearl Clayton (née Stanford) and Napoleon Paul St. Pierre. As a young woman, his mother earned a science degree from Macdonald College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., becoming, along with classmate Margaret Newton, “Canada’s first girl graduates in agriculture,” as one 1918 newspaper story noted. She was teaching school in Piapot, a farming village in southwestern Saskatchewan, when she met her husband.
The young family relocated to her hometown of Dartmouth, N.S. His mother, who called her son Sunny Jim, would tell him he was “Canada’s youngest little old man.” Many years later, Mr. St. Pierre told interviewer Lynne McNamara that his mother’s comforting words through the Depression were that if times got tough, they could always homestead in the Cariboo. She had never visited the territory, but knew it by reputation from her time as a school teacher in the West. His parents eventually settled on a farm at Merlin, Ont.
At about age 13, Paul wrote a letter to the Halifax Chronicle that was displayed prominently in the pages of the morning newspaper. He was hooked on the intoxicating pleasure of seeing his words – not to mention his name – in print.
He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941, determined to become a bomber pilot. Instead, he was trained as a wireless operator. A bout with rheumatic fever caused him to be invalided out of the air force before he was ever sent overseas.
After the war, he travelled to British Columbia with $8 in his pocket to seek work as a radio operator. He was hired by the Columbian, a daily newspaper published in New Westminster. After a year, he skipped to the struggling Vancouver News-Herald for a brief spell before being hired by The Vancouver Sun in 1947, his home until 1979 save for a four-year interregnum when he served in Parliament.
The Sun was entering a golden age of high circulation, sparked in part by an enviable stable of columnists, which would over the years include Jack Scott, Bruce Hutchison, Allan Fotheringham, Simma Holt, Marjorie Nichols and Denny Boyd, among other celebrated wordsmiths. Many of his newsroom contemporaries regarded Mr. St. Pierre as the finest of the lot, as he found in the 800-word template of the column the perfect structure for a character study. The subjects for his column were often found by wandering dusty Cariboo roads until he found another living soul, then stopping to talk.