I’ve lived in Canada for nineteen years now, but I still don’t feel fully Canadian. The current government does nothing to ease my doubts: Harper’s vision of a glorious nation, built on the military victories of 1812 and the promise of greater economic victories dug out of the earth make me want to flee the village. Thankfully, my personal hero this week has a kindly habit of patting me on the back, reassuring me that Canadian nationality is not defined by the current administration, but by the works and lives of the many people that call this disparate collection of locales their home. Pierre Berton is my man of national quality and straight talk.
Berton’s life reads like an atlas of Canada (he comes from a time when people still used atlases to plot out their dreams): his hometown is the capital of the Yukon Gold Rush, Dawson City; the Berton family moved down to the sunny shores of Victoria, BC, where, after a few years at the sapling known as Victoria College, Pierre transferred to the bigger shores of Vancouver — and became the youngest editor of a Canadian daily newspaper; he moved on to become one of the country’s most esteemed journalists in Toronto — he was the editor of Maclean’s, co-edited the Toronto Star, and helped produce some of CBC’s best panel show material; and he chose rural Ontario for his place of retirement.
In an interview for the American blog Big Think, Neil Degrasse Tyson said the following about great individuals in human history: “I think that the greatest of people that have been in society — they were never versions of someone else — they were uniquely themselves.”
I share Tyson’s admiration of the hero/genius or truthful individual. And so does Pierre, it seems: in 2004, at the height of his decorated career, the retiring journalist was featured on the Rick Mercer Report, shocking the nation as he admitted to his own longstanding, recreational use of marajuana. The man must have known the repercussions of such a publicised admission of drug use — he’d been conversing with celebrities who had been caught up in the same kind of scandals for years. I know this probably isn’t the kind of individuality that Tyson had in mind, but I’m proud that a national literary hero could so brazenly disavow conventional perceptions and be “uniquely” himself on national television. I guess he had a lot of practice.
In that shocking visit to the airwaves, Pierre Berton reminded me of William Burroughs’ favorite slogan of the fifties:”Roll your own!” The phrase sums up the DIY ethos before that lifestyle really existed as we know it today. At the heart of Berton’s work, and his life, lies the determination to get out there and make a better, more truthful world. The man worked seventeen hour days in Klondike mining camps and still had time think of story ideas to send to newspapers. The men and women he paid tribute to in his Canadian histories lived similarly robust lives: whether conniving against the incline of the Chilkoot pass or trying to form a union against the implaccable industry leaders of the Depression, the people Berton focussed on in his writings were all hardworking heroes in their own right. That’s the Canada I want to be a part of, nineteen years in; and I have Berton to thank for that humbled perspective on the country I call home.