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Remembering Pierre Berton

November 14, 2008 Leave a comment

I’m at the Bright Pearl Restaurant on Spadina Avenue in Toronto, helping celebrate the memory of Pierre Berton at the sixth annual fund-raiser for the Berton Writers’ Retreat in Dawson City, Yukon.

This is a  fine event for anyone with an appreciation of Pierre Berton’s iconic role as Canada’s great popular historian. More than that, it’s an opportunity to signal the importance of keeoing alive an  appreciation for Canada’s past and the people who have contributed to making our country what it is today.

Last night’s dinner did just this, with the presentation of the Pierre Berton Award for contributions to the popularizing of Canadian history. It’s a prestigious award presented by the National History Society, publishers of The Beaver magazine (for which I’ve written a few articles).

This year’s prize went to the organizers of an online project for students, Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. It has web sites posing clues and questions about mysteries of the Canadian past, challenging students to figure out who or what was involved.

Elsa Franklin, longtime manager for Pierre Berton, organizes these dinners under the aegis of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The Bright Pearl was one of Pierre’s favorite restaurants and there were lots of literary celebrities among the 250 guests. I suspect the evening may have set a fund-raising record for the Berton Writers’ Retreat. The Retreat is Berton’s boyhood home, which he donated to a public trust.

For me, the highlight of the evening is the video of Pierre reciting the great Robert Service poem, the Shooting of Dan McGrew.

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.

But there was more last night. A.B. McKillop, chair of the Department of History at Carleton University, was there to autograph copies of his new Berton biography.

pierre-bereton1

McKillop’s book is the first definitive take on the life of the man who was a dominant figure in Canadian media and writing for half a century. I knew Pierre only casually, but I think I’ve read every one of his books and I’m looking forward to seeing how McKillop treats Berton in this one.

Last night was also a fun evening. We were treated to performances by two of the brightest stars of the Canadian entertainment firmament of the 70s and 80s, Dinah Christie and Catherine McKinnon.  Ron James gave one of the funniest (and longest) comedic monologues I’ve ever heard. He was incredibly amusing.

And we left with a Krups Espresso machine and a 750ml bottle of Remy Martin Champagne Cognac. A good evening!