Skip to main content

Everybody called him Pierre.

Journalist, author, pundit, personality -- for more than 50 years Pierre Berton dominated print and broadcast media in Canada. He wrote 50 books, an average of one a year since he published The Royal Family in 1954, an expanded compilation of his own newspaper and magazine articles.

Many of his books were forgettable, but the best ones -- his histories of the North, the building of the transcontinental railway, the War of 1812 -- earned him three Governor-General's Awards, 14 honorary degrees, the respect of professional historians and the gratitude of ordinary Canadians for giving them a memorable sense of their past.

He died at the age of 84 yesterday at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto of complications from diabetes and heart disease. At his side was his family, including Janet, his wife of almost 60 years. She was in rehabilitation after surgery after falling and breaking her hip this fall.

Broadcaster Lister Sinclair was one of his closest friends. They met in 1939, in Vancouver.

"His manner persuaded people sometimes that he was arrogant, but he wasn't. He was quite humble. He was the most decent person I've ever met," Mr. Sinclair said last night. "He tried to conceal the fact that he was endlessly sympathetic. Everything that he wrote was always on the side of the victim."

"He is one of the real honest-to-God giants of the writing, not literary, scene," writer Farley Mowat said from his home in Port Hope, Ont. "I am going to miss his memory considerably and the times we shared together. I will miss his incisive ways and methods of deflating me and anybody else who got too pretentious."

Mr. Berton was a generous and mostly anonymous benefactor to writers and artists in need. He was a founding member of the Writer's Trust, the Writer's Union and the Berton House Writers' Retreat.

He gave $50,000 to the Yukon Arts Council in 1989, to buy his childhood home in Dawson City and turn it into a haven for professional writers. More than 20 writers, including Russell Smith and Andrew Pyper, spent time in the house.

"Whenever there is a disaster, and we all have them, the Bertons are always the first ones on your doorstep," journalist and friend June Callwood said.

"[He was]such an important writer in the days when there weren't any. He was also an enormously generous man," author Alice Munro said.

He had been in ill health for some time, but he wanted to go out as he had lived his life: working.

This fall he published his 50th book, Prisoners of the North, a quintet of profiles of Arctic adventurers, including Klondike Joe Boyle, Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Robert Service.

In reviewing the book for The Globe, Whitehorse physician and author Peter Steele wrote: ". . . Berton gives us a vivid picture of how the land can get under people's skin and become a potent driving force in their lives. Although plowing familiar soil -- each of these people has been the subject of at least one biography -- Berton manages to produce an exciting series of personal vignettes."

Although slowed by his ailments, Mr. Berton continued to write and to make television appearances.

In October, he demonstrated his technique for rolling a marijuana joint on Rick Mercer's Monday Report.

"I just called him and asked him if he would come on the show and teach Canada how to roll a joint. He immediately said, 'Yes, come up to the house. I'd be happy to do so,' " Mr. Mercer said.

Mr. Mercer spent the day with Mr. Berton at his home in Kleinburg, Ont. The comedian called the time spent with Mr. Berton one of the "highlights" of his life.

This fall, Mr. Berton began a regular monthly column for The Globe about colourful characters from Canada's past.

His most recent column appeared on Saturday and he had several more written.

Mr. Berton and Mr. Mowat had a much publicized feud that was a bookseller's dream, but it was a farce as far as the two principals were concerned.

"We always got along fine. He and I knew that I was the better writer, but he was the more successful one, so we split it on that basis," Mr. Mowat joked recently.

A much more serious feud was the one Mr. Berton had with academic historians. Military historian J. L. Granatstein, who won the $10,000 Pierre Berton Award for popular history from the National History Society last week, acknowledged he had been critical of Mr. Berton.

"I certainly reviewed him unfavorably," Prof. Granatstein said.

"I actually said once in print that he consciously made things interesting . And he wrote a letter, as I recall, saying 'of course I make things interesting. Do you think I am an idiot?' And I thought that was fair."

Mr. Berton, who was a prolific writer, approached history very differently from most academic historians," Prof. Granatstein said. "He chose good subjects and wrote them up in a way that people wanted to buy them.

The academics, by definition, picked obscure subjects and wrote them terribly, and nobody wanted to read them.

It was inevitable that there was a clash between the two."

As the decades passed, the academics looked much more favourably on Mr. Berton's work as a popular historian.

"Without Pierre Berton there would scarcely be any Canadian history left," Prof. Granatstein said. "For the last 40 years he has popularized Canadian history in a way that nobody else was doing."

A lover of cats and of women, for whom he had a deep and abiding respect, Mr. Berton inspired and demonstrated loyalty.

"He was my best buddy," said his producer and agent Elsa Franklin, who had worked with him on television shows and other projects for 40 years.

His wife (whom he married in 1946) was his first and best proofreader, Janice Tyrwhitt edited all his books beginning with Drifting Home in 1973, and Janet Craig was his perennial copy editor.

Barbara Sears researched Hollywood's Canada for him in 1975, a working relationship that lasted through nearly 20 books.

"He was the quickest study -- by a country mile -- of anybody I worked for."

He was born on July 12, 1920, in Whitehorse, but his family moved to Dawson City when he was less than a year old.

After graduating from high school in 1937, he headed south to Victoria to attend college.

He soon switched to the University of British Columbia so that he could work at the student newspaper, the Ubyssey. Later, he said that was one of three key career moves for him.

Another was accepting an offer to head east to Toronto to work at Maclean's, then a monthly magazine.

At the time, he thought Toronto was merely a way station to New York.

"My idea was always to go to the States and work for Life magazine or The Saturday Evening Post," he said later.

In the end he had no regrets.

"I've done much better here than I would have done in the States. I became a big frog in a little puddle."

The third career switch was becoming a daily columnist for the Toronto Star for four years, beginning in 1958.

"He reinvented the genre," Ms. Callwood said.

"There was, in Pierre's journalism, an urge to be a social critic and to stir up debate and emotions. He was a trouble maker in the Joseph Atkinson tradition," historian Ramsay Cook said.

Mr. Berton became a panelist on Front Page Challenge in 1957, by chance. "They tested everyone in town for that show -- except me -- and I got on as a guest," he said.

He clearly was telegenic and he knew a lot of history, so he got all the answers right. "In those days, that was what counted -- it was the day of the quiz show -- and so they kept me on for 38 years," he said in an interview in 2001. The show was cancelled to public protests in 1995.

Broadcaster Betty Kennedy who was also a panelist on Front Page Challenge, remembered a time many years ago at the height of Mr. Berton's fame when, despite mounting work commitments, he left Toronto to attend a Boy Scout jamboree.

When she asked him why he was going, he replied, "If it wasn't for the Boy Scouts, I would have been a juvenile delinquent."

Mr. Berton leaves his wife, his children Penny, Pamela, Patricia, Peter, Paul, Peggy, Perri and Eric and more than a dozen grandchildren.