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Pierre Berton
Pierre Berton and Ruby in their later years at Kleinburg, Ontario.
Pierre Berton and Ruby in their later years at Kleinburg, Ontario.
Born Pierre Francis de Marigny Berton
(1920-07-12)July 12, 1920
Whitehorse, Yukon
Died November 30, 2004(2004-11-30) (aged 84)
Toronto, Ontario
Place of burial Kleinburg, Ontario
Nationality Canadian
Citizenship Canadian
Education History
Alma mater University of British Columbia
Occupation non-fiction author, journalist

Pierre Francis de Marigny Berton, CC OOnt (July 12, 1920 – November 30, 2004) was a noted Canadian author of non-fiction, especially Canadiana and Canadian history, and was a well-known television personality and journalist.

An accomplished storyteller, Berton was one of Canada's most prolific and popular authors. He wrote on popular culture, Canadian history, critiques of mainstream religion, anthologies, children's books and historical works for youth. He was also a founder of the Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community. Berton's 50 books became popular because his light and fast-paced style was not weighted down by footnotes or deep probes into primary sources. Historian C.P. Stacey in 1980, said Berton demonstrated his skill as an anecdotalist, or storyteller, who emphasized the human dimension, while often overlooking the scholarship. His two-volume history of the war of 1812, running to 928 pages, was republished in 2011 as "Pierre Berton's War of 1812 (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2011).[1]

Early years

He was born on July 12, 1920, in Whitehorse, Yukon, where his father had moved for the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush.[2] His family moved to Dawson City, Yukon in 1921, where they lived until moving to Victoria, British Columbia in 1932.[2] His mother, Laura Beatrice Berton (née Thompson) was a school teacher in Toronto until she was offered a job as a teacher in Dawson City at the age of 29 in 1907. She met Frank Berton in the nearby mining town of Granville shortly after settling in Dawson and teaching kindergarten. Laura Beatrice Berton's autobiography of life in the Yukon entitled I Married the Klondike was published in her later years and gave her, what her son Pierre describes as 'a modicum of fame, which she thoroughly enjoyed.'[3]

Like his father, Pierre Berton worked in Klondike mining camps during his years as a history major at the University of British Columbia,[4] where he also worked on the student paper The Ubyssey.[5] He spent his early newspaper career in Vancouver, where at 21 he was the youngest city editor on any Canadian daily, replacing editorial staff that had been called up during the Second World War.[3]

Berton himself was conscripted into the Canadian Army under the National Resources Mobilization Act in 1942 and attended basic training in British Columbia, nominally as a reinforcement soldier intended for The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.[3] He elected to "go Active" (the euphemism for volunteering for overseas service) and his aptitude was such that he was appointed Lance Corporal and attended NCO school, and became a basic training instructor in the rank of corporal.[3] Due to a background in university COTC and inspired by other citizen-soldiers who had been commissioned, he sought training as an officer.[3]

Berton spent the next several years attending a variety of military courses, becoming, in his words, the most highly trained officer in the military. He was warned for overseas duty many times, and was granted embarkation leave many times, each time finding his overseas draft being cancelled.[3] A coveted trainee slot with the Canadian Intelligence Corps saw Berton, now a Captain, trained to act as an Intelligence Officer (IO), and after a stint as an instructor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, he finally went overseas in March 1945.[3] In the UK, he was told that he would have to requalify as an IO because the syllabus in the UK was different from that in the intelligence school in Canada. By the time Berton had requalified, the war in Europe had ended. He volunteered for the Canadian Army Pacific Force (CAPF), granted a final "embarkation leave", and found himself no closer to combat employment by the time the Japanese surrendered in September 1945.[3]

In 1947 he went on an expedition to the Nahanni River with pilot Russ Baker. Berton's account for the Vancouver Sun was picked up by International News Service, making him a noted adventure-travel writer.

Editor in Toronto

Pierre Berton's Star on Canada's Walk of Fame

Berton moved to Toronto in 1947. At the age of 31 he was named managing editor of Macleans.[3] In 1957, he became a key member of the CBC's public affairs flagship program, Close-Up, and a permanent panelist on the popular television show Front Page Challenge.[6] That same year, he also narrated the Academy Award-nominated National Film Board of Canada documentary City of Gold, exploring life in his hometown of Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush.[7] He then released an album in conjunction with Folkways Records, entitled The Story of the Klondike: Stampede for Gold – The Golden Trail.[8]

Berton joined the Toronto Star as associate editor of the Star Weekly and columnist for the daily paper in 1958, leaving in 1962 to commence The Pierre Berton Show, which ran until 1973.[6] It was on this show that in 1971 Berton interviewed Bruce Lee in what was to be the famous martial artist's only surviving television interview. Berton's television career included spots as host and writer on My Country, The Great Debate, Heritage Theatre, The Secret of My Success and The National Dream.[6]

Berton served as the Chancellor of Yukon College and, along with numerous honorary degrees, received over 30 literary awards such as the Governor General's Award for Creative Non-Fiction (three times), the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humour, and the Gabrielle Léger Award for Lifetime Achievement in Heritage Conservation.[citation needed] He is a member of Canada's Walk of Fame, having been inducted in 1998. In The Greatest Canadian project, he was voted No. 31 in the list of great Canadians.[6] Berton was named Toronto Humanist of the Year 2003 by the Humanist Association of Toronto. The honour is presented by H.A.T. to men and women who, in their actions and creative endeavours, exemplify the principles of Humanism: a commitment to reason, compassion, ethics and human dignity.[9] He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest decoration, and was also a member of the Order of Ontario.


In 2004, Berton published his 50th book, Prisoners of the North, after which he announced in an interview with CanWest News Service that he was retiring from writing.[citation needed] On October 17, 2004, the $12.6 million CAD Pierre Berton Resource Library, named in his honour, was opened in Vaughan, Ontario.[10][11] He had lived in nearby Kleinburg, Ontario, for about fifty years.[12]

Berton raised eyebrows in October 2004 by discussing his forty years of recreational use of marijuana on two CBC Television programs, Play and Rick Mercer Report. On the latter show he gave a "celebrity tip" on how to roll a joint.[13][14][15]


Berton died at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto, reportedly of heart failure, at the age of 84 on November 30, 2004.[2] His cremated remains were scattered at his home in Kleinburg.

Berton House Writers' Retreat

His childhood home in Dawson City, Yukon, now called Berton House, is currently used as a retreat for professional Canadian writers. Established authors apply for a three-month long subsidized residency, adding to the area's literary community with events such as local public readings. Previously, The Berton House Writers' Retreat was administered by the Berton House Writer's Retreat Society and Elsa Franklin, Pierre Berton's long-time editor and agent. In October 2007, the deed to Berton House was passed to the Writers' Trust of Canada; the literary organization now oversees the program as part of its roster of literary support.[16]

Pierre Berton Award

Established in 1994, the Pierre Berton Award is presented annually by Canada's National History Society for distinguished achievement in presenting Canadian history in an informative and engaging manner. Berton was the first recipient and agreed to lend his name to future awards.[citation needed]

Pierre Berton Public School

A school in Vaughan, Ontario was named after Pierre Berton in the York Region District School Board in September 2011. The Berton Family came and visited and had an official opening of the school in front of the students.


  • Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal 2002
  • Order of Canada, Companion, 1986.[17]
  • Canadian Booksellers Award, 1982.
  • Canadian Authors Association Literary Award for non-fiction, 1981
  • Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal 1977
  • Nellie Award, best public affairs broadcaster in radio, 1978.
  • Governor General's Awards for: The Last Spike, 1972; Klondike, 1958; The Mysterious North, 1956.
  • Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, 1959.


  • 1954 The Golden Trail: The Story of the Klondike Rush
  • 1954 The Royal Family
  • 1955 The Golden Trail
  • 1956 The Mysterious North: Encounters with the Canadian Frontier, 1947–1954
  • 1956 Illustrated Heritage of Canada: The Beginning Years, 1860–1870
  • 1957 Illustrated Heritage of Canada: The Seventies
  • 1958 Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896–1899
  • 1959 The Klondike Fever: The Life and Death of the Last Great Gold Rush
  • 1959 Just Add Water and Stir
  • 1960 Adventures of a Columnist
  • 1961 The Secret World of Og
  • 1961 The New City : A Prejudiced View of Toronto
  • 1962 Fast, Fast, Fast Relief
  • 1963 The Big Sell : An Introduction to the Black Arts of Door-to Door Salesmanship & Other Techniques
  • 1965 My War with the Twentieth Century
  • 1965 The Comfortable Pew : A Critical look at Christianity and the Religious Establishment in the New Age
  • 1966 The Cool, Crazy, Committed World of the Sixties
  • 1967 "Voices from the Sixties"
  • 1968 The Smug Minority
  • 1970 The National Dream: The Great Railway, 1871–1881
  • 1972 The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881–1885
  • 1972 The Impossible Railway: The Building of the Canadian Pacific
  • 1973 Drifting Home
  • 1975 Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of the National Image
  • 1976 My Country: The Remarkable Past
  • 1977 The Dionne Years: A Thirties Melodrama
  • 1978 The Wild Frontier: More Tales from the Remarkable Past
  • 1980 The Invasion of Canada: 1812–1813
  • 1981 Flames Across the Border: 1813–1814
  • 1982 Why we Act like Canadians: A Personal Exploration of our National Character
  • 1983 The Klondike Quest
  • 1984 The Promised Land: Settling the West 1896–1914
  • 1985 Masquerade (as "Lisa Kroniuk")[18]
  • 1985 Vimy
  • 1987 Starting out: 1920–1947
  • 1988 The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818–1909
  • 1990 The Great Depression: 1929–1939
  • 1992 Niagara: A History of the Falls
  • 1994 The Battle of Lake Erie
  • 1994 Winter
  • 1995 My Times: Living With History, 1917–1995
  • 1995 Attack on Montreal
  • 1996 The Great Lakes
  • 1996 Farewell to the Twentieth Century
  • 1997 1967: The Last Good Year
  • 1999 Worth Repeating: A Literary Resurrection
  • 2000 Welcome To The 21st Century: More Absurdities From Our Time
  • 2001 Marching as to War: Canada's Turbulent Years
  • 2002 Cats I Have Known and Loved
  • 2003 The Joy of Writing: A Guide for Writers Disguised as a Literary Memoir
  • 2004 Prisoners of the North
  • 2005 For the Love of History: Winners of the Pierre Berton Award Bring to Life Canada's Past
  • History for Young Canadians
    • The Battles of the War of 1812
      • The Capture of Detroit
      • The Death of Isaac Brock
      • Revenge of the Tribes
      • Canada Under Siege
      • The Battle of Lake Erie
      • The Death of Tecumseh
      • Attack on Montreal
    • Exploring the Frozen North
      • Parry of the Arctic
      • Jane Franklin's Obsession
      • Dr. Kane of the Arctic Seas
      • Trapped in the Arctic
    • Canada Moves West
      • The Railway Pathfinders
      • The Men in Sheepskin Coats
      • A Prairie Nightmare
      • Steel Across the Plains
      • Steel Across the Shield
    • The Great Klondike Gold Rush
      • Bonanza Gold
      • The Klondike Stampede
      • Trails of '98, City of Gold
      • Before the Gold Rush
      • Kings of the Klondike

All of Pierre Berton's writings, including finished books and articles as well as manuscripts, drafts, and research material are now held in the Pierre Berton fonds at the McMaster University Archives here.[19]


  1. John R. Grodzinski, "Opening Shots from the Bicentenary of the War of 1812: Canadian Perspective on Recent Titles," The Journal of Military History (October 2012) 76#4 page 1189
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Gerard, Warren (December 1, 2004). "He was 'all fire and sparkling with ideas'". Toronto: Torstar. pp. A08-A09. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 Berton, Pierre (1987). Starting Out, 1920–1947. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-1342-6. 
  4. Parker, Janice (January 1, 2002). Craats, Rennay. ed. Writers. Weigl Educational Publishers. p. 42. ISBN 978-1-896990-90-3. Retrieved March 2, 2011. 
  5. Brettell, Caroline (1999-05). Writing against the wind: a mother's life history. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-8420-2783-0. Retrieved March 2, 2011. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 "Pierre Berton 1920–2004". CBC News Online. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. November 30, 2004. Archived from the original on March 2, 2011. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  7. Colombo, John Robert (1984). Canadian literary landmarks. Dundurn Press Ltd.. p. 287. ISBN 978-0-88882-073-0. Retrieved March 2, 2011. 
  8. "The Story of the Klondike: Stampede for Gold – The Golden Trail – Pierre Berton". Smithsonian Folkways. Archived from the original on March 2, 2011. 
  9. "Humanist Association of Toronto". 
  10. Wilkes, Jim (October 18, 2004). "Berton's name adorns new Vaughan library". Toronto: Torstar. p. B.04. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  11. "Pierre Berton Resource Library Wins Another Prestigious Award". Vaughan Public Libraries. January 31, 2007. Retrieved 2010-05-24. 
  12. "Pierre Berton: the writer at home". March 29, 1987. Archived from the original on March 3, 2011. 
  13. "RMR: Celebrity Tip with Pierre Berton". YouTube. October 18, 2004. Retrieved 2012-11-01. 
  14. "Pierre Berton's celebrity toking tips". CBCNews Arts & Entertainment. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. October 15, 2004. Archived from the original on 2007-01-13. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  15. "Celebrity Tip with Pierre Berton". The Rick Mercer Report. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. October 18, 2004. Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  16. "Pierre Berton Writers' Retreat". Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  17. Office of the Governor General of Canada. Order of Canada citation. Queen's Printer for Canada. Retrieved May 24, 2010
  18. Sexy Book, from the Orlando Sentinel; published July 14, 1985; retrieved February 7, 2013
  19. Alex Erasmi. "Pierre Berton, McMaster libraries". Retrieved 2012-11-01. 

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