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.
“They were sufficiently isolated that their personalities could be developed independently of the customs and shibboleths of the rest of the world,” he told Ms. McNamara in a televised 1988 interview. “It was a place of strong characters. They knew who they were.”
He maintained a cabin of his own at Big Creek, to which he welcomed newsroom cronies, including Ron Rose, who was invited on a hunting expedition with the instructions: “You bring the whisky, I’ve got the food.” Mr. Rose dutifully stocked up on liquor. “We tried out one of the bottles once we crossed the Chilcotin; any of Paul’s old friends will know the routine – you throw the cap out the window and then you have to keep nibbling on the bottle in case the stuff goes bad,” Mr. Rose told a gathering on Mr. St. Pierre’s 80th birthday. The duo arrived at the cabin, where Mr. Rose discovered provisions were limited to a case of canned salmon.
They had some watery mishaps while bird hunting and later got lost in a valley. A few days later, it was time to return home. After untold miles of blacktop rolled past without a word being exchanged, Mr. Rose inquired if he had incurred his host’s anger.
“Shut up,” Mr. St. Pierre explained. “Can’t you tell I’m writing my column?”
The real-life characters he met on the parched ranch land in the province’s Interior provided the inspiration for the drama series Cariboo Country, aired by CBC television in the 1960s. Set near the fictional town of Namko, the series depicted the challenges faced by a rancher known only as Smith. The series is notable for casting First Nations actors and for portraying them as individuals with idiosyncrasies beyond the stereotypes that dominated Hollywood movies and television westerns. Cariboo Country marked the acting debut of Chief Dan George as Ol Antoine, a role he would reprise in the unsatisfying 1969 Disney movie adaptation Smith!, featuring Glenn Ford in the title role.
An episode of the show led to Breaking Smith’s Quarter Horse, a celebrated 1966 comic novel in which the hard-pressed rancher Smith relies on his inherent gumption to survive.
In 1965, Mr. St. Pierre released Boss of the Namko Drive, a work of juvenile fiction about a 15-year-old cattle driver in charge of 197 cows who endures a stampede, a near-drowning and drunken cowboys.
The rancher Smith and native friend Ol Antoine reappeared in Smith and Other Events: Tales of the Chilcotin (1983). “Paul St. Pierre relays these stories beautifully, in the language of the people and places he describes, the kind of vivid language that provides literature the nourishment it needs,” The New York Times stated in a review.
Over a prolific career, he released two collections of columns (Chilcotin Holiday and Chilcotin and Beyond, the latter shortlisted for the Leacock humour award), a collection of short stories (Tell Me a Good Lie), a memoir (Old Enough to Know Better), a collection of caustic observations (All is Well – Sort Of), and a novel (In the Navel of the Moon), set in the fictional Mexican border town of San Sebastian de Hidalgo, “with a name longer than its main street,” which Mr. St. Pierre regarded as his finest work, though it received less attention than he hoped on publication in 1993. Chris Dafoe in The Globe called it “an affectionate and detailed portrait of the people of the village.”
Mr. St. Pierre maintained a third residence in Mexico at Teacapan on the Agua Grande river at the southern edge of Sinaloa state, where his nickname was el Hombre Lobo (the Wolf Man), “because I have whiskers on my muzzle, pale eyes and a restless manner.” The novel’s protagonist is a retired newspaperman asked by a brother-in-law in the Mounties to keep an eye on the drug trade. The tale was partly inspired by his own experience in Mexico, where his first home had been next door to a drug exporter known as Crazy Pig.
Mr. St. Pierre stunned newsroom colleagues when he stood for election in 1968, running under the Liberal banner in a campaign remembered for Trudeaumania. The columnist threw his cowboy hat into the ring in Coast Chilcotin, a constituency so vast the legal description of its borders runs 687 words, including longitudes and latitudes. He was dispatched to Ottawa with 10,292 votes to 7,477 for the runner-up NDP candidate.
As independent minded as his constituents, he bristled at the restrictions of party discipline, “balking like a cayuse on its first halter,” the journalist Patrick Nagle would later write. In time, Mr. St. Pierre made peace, of sorts, with the party’s leadership, serving as parliamentary secretary to External Affairs Minister Mitchell Sharp. At the United Nations, he protested the “poisonous, dangerous and in the ultimate futile” testing of nuclear weapons by the superpowers. He also headed Canada’s first delegation to the Organization of American States as non-member observers in 1972.
The job cost him both personally and financially. His marriage faltered during this period, eventually ending in divorce. As well, the $12,000 salary he earned as a member of Parliament represented a substantial cut from the sum he earned as a columnist. He also faced the cost of chartering a float plane to visit remote outposts in his sprawling riding, which was said to have 50,000 people living on 50,000 square miles.
“All I can claim is the mileage I could charge if I went by road, if there was a road, and that isn’t enough to get me off the ground,” he complained.
Despite the hardship, he was one of only six MPs, five of them from British Columbia, to pledge not to accept a $6,000 pay raise.
His reward after four years of crisscrossing the country was to be defeated by the NDP’s Harry Olaussen by 360 votes in 1972, an outcome likely owing to antipathy toward his leader. When Pierre Trudeau accompanied Mr. St. Pierre to the Williams Lake Stampede in 1970, the Prime Minister wore slacks and a striped dress shirt with an ascot. Mr. St. Pierre dressed like his constituents – in a Western shirt with bolo tie, a large buckle on the belt holding up his jeans.
His contribution to political life included a memorable aphorism: “Canadian politics in British Columbia is an adventure, on the Prairies a cause, in Ontario a business, in Quebec a religion, in the Maritimes a disease.”
In 1979, Mr. St. Pierre gave up his newspaper column to become a B.C. police commissioner, serving for four years.
In 2000, he received the Terasen (now George Woodcock) Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to letters in British Columbia. As well, he won awards for his stage plays and teleplays, while the Western Writers of America presented him with a Spur Award for short fiction in 1984 for the story Sale of One Small Ranch.
Mr. St. Pierre died at his home in Fort Langley, B.C., on July 27. He leaves a son, Paul St. Pierre, and daughters Michelle Marino and Suzanne St. Pierre from his first marriage, as well as a daughter, Yesica Gonzalez, whom he adopted from an impoverished family in the Mexican fishing village in which he wintered. He also leaves 10 grandchildren. A second marriage also ended in divorce.
Before his death, the author purchased a grave marker on which he had carved the epitaph: “This was not my idea.”
For a man celebrated as the chronicler of a wild, Western life, Mr. St. Pierre harboured a prejudice that probably would have surprised his readers. He did not like horses.
“They’re stupid animals,” he once told the critic Robert Fulford, “and as far as I’m concerned their only value is that riding them is better than walking.”
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