Canadian author, Klondike chronicler, Berton dies at 84

Media personality published more than 40 books, many on the Gold Rush

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2004

TORONTO - Canadian author and broadcaster Pierre Berton, who grew up in the Yukon Territory and became one of the country's most recognizable and beloved media personalities, has died at age 84.

Berton died Tuesday afternoon, said a spokeswoman for Sunnybrook hospital. She wouldn't divulge the cause of death but he reportedly died of heart failure after a stay of several weeks in hospital.

Berton had a long and varied career, publishing more than 40 books, working as a newspaper columnist, Maclean's magazine editor and as a broadcast personality.

He was born in Whitehorse in 1920 and grew up in Dawson City as the town declined in the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush. His parents were Gold Rush pioneers, and his mother, Laura Berton, compiled her memoirs in the book "I Married the Klondike." The family stayed in Dawson City until Pierre was 12, when they moved to Vancouver.

Among Pierre Berton's best-selling books was "Klondike: The Life and Death of the Last Gold Rush," first published in 1958. Berton published several other books on the Klondike Gold Rush and other Northern topics, and was the first chancellor of Yukon College. His childhood home in Dawson City has been restored and now is a writers' retreat.

Writer Alistair MacLeod said Berton "made the history of Canada come alive."

"He emphasized the importance of our history as distinct from American history or British history or French history. ... And without having written down that record of life within this country, we would all be poorer," MacLeod said from Windsor, Ont. "He was able to imbue history with an excitement that a lot of lesser writers might not have been capable of so doing."

In every career step, Berton's trademark humor and eccentric take on the world was evident - as was his trademark bow tie, bushy white sideburns and dramatic cloaks.

As recently as October, Berton appeared on the CBC satire show, Rick Mercer's Monday Report, offering tips on how to roll a marijuana joint, recommending his book The National Dream as an excellent "rolling surface" and warning about the perils of a loose joint. He said a less-than-firmly rolled spliff could leave unsightly toke burns on one's bow tie.

Berton also told the Toronto Star that he had been a recreational marijuana-user since the 1960s, saying he'd reached a stage in his life where he didn't "give a damn" what he said or what people thought.

Mercer recalled asking Berton to appear on his show after hearing rumors that the elderly Canadian icon liked to smoke pot.

"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,"' Mercer said.

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

"He was definitely introduced to a whole new audience" by appearing on the show, Mercer added. "But I think what he showed, by appearing on the show, was that he was completely current ... for him to do that was a completely now issue and it was great that he did it."

Mercer said he was saddened to hear of Berton's death, adding: "He chronicled the history of Canada, and he made history exciting."

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