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A new biography of Pierre Berton

On October 14 th, 2008 in Ottawa, a Carleton University historian is releasing his new book called" Pierre Berton, a Biography." The book is a massive 681 pages and is the subject of this Yukon Nugget.

Ontario author, Brian McKillop, thinks Pierre Berton is a Canadian icon and he set about to prove it in this sweeping biography. During his research, McKillop discovered a family secret that even Pierre didn’t know. Pierre’s father Frank, who trekked to the Klondike in 1898, grew up in New Brunswick. However, Pierre was unaware, until just months before he died in 2004, that his father had lived much of his young life in an orphanage.

In 1878, Pierre’s grandmother, then a widow, had two boys and was unable to raise them both. So she kept five-year-old Jack and left Frank at Wiggins Male Orphan Institution, where he lived for 10 years. He then graduated from the University of New Brunswick and headed off to the Klondike to seek his fortune and start a family in Dawson City.

Pierre Berton was born in Whitehorse on July 12, 1920 and raised in Dawson City. His mother, Laura Beatrice Berton (née Thomson) was a school teacher in Dawson City, where she had met Frank Berton.

The book details Pierre’s rise to fame, from his days as a young newspaper reporter in Vancouver to national prominence with Maclean's magazine, TV shows, including Front Page Challenge, and best-selling books.

Behind the scenes, there is a more notorious story. For many years, says the author, Berton led a racy private life and sought to keep the details private.

During the Second World War, while a soldier serving in Britain, his girlfriend, named Frances, announced she was pregnant by him. The two went their separate ways and Mr. Berton, according to McKillop, never made inquiries to determine whether he had a son or daughter in England.

In the 1960s in Toronto, Berton was known to his close friends as an habitual skirt-chaser and a member of the Sordsmen's Club, an organization of Toronto men dedicated to good food, lively discussion, beautiful women and more. A young Adrienne Clarkson, later to become Governor General, was one of the women invited to dine and cavort with the Sordsmen.

Author McKillop calls Berton Canada's first modern celebrity and its most iconic figure because he spent a lifetime researching Canada's history and writing renowned books, including The National Dream, The Last Spike, Klondike, and The Comfortable Pew.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin




Mount Churchill

It was so remote that no one had ever heard of it. Even today, Mount Churchill is seldom seen and rarely explored. But this giant mountain in the St. Elias has certainly left its mark on the Yukon. Located 25km west of the Alaska-Yukon border in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Mount Churchill is more than 15,000 feet high, and permanently covered with ice and snow. The first explosion that blew the top off the mountain occurred about 1900 years ago, when volcanic ash was sent flying over northwest Alaska, landing as far away as Eagle. Then, 1250 years ago, Mount Churchill erupted again in a much larger explosion, which blew the lid off the mountain, and carried the ash into the southwest Yukon. It’s known as the White River Ash, and covers almost 600,000 square kilometers in Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories. Along roadways it appears as a thin white line close to the surface. However, closer to the volcano, the ash can be 60cm thick. The ancient ash is well preserved, leading scientists to believe that the explosion occurred in the winter because it was immediately frozen and protected by a layer of snow. People and wildlife living in the southwest Yukon at the time would have been well aware of the eruption, and may even have heard it, but they would have no idea of its source. The ash would have killed vegetation in the area, making it difficult for people living on the land, and would have darkened the skies for weeks, if not months. So massive was the explosion that anthropologists think it could have caused the migrations from the north that eventually led to the formation of Athabascan cultures, such as the Apache and Navajo in the southwestern United States.

Mount Churchill, the source of all the misery, has been inactive for a long time because it has a thick magma, and takes a while to build up pressure before exploding again. Volcanoes of this type tend to erupt in 100 to 1000 year cycles, so it’s an open question as to when the mountain may blow its top again. But it will, and when it does it will have a significant economic impact on Canada. It could obstruct air travel, trigger mudslides and floods in the region, and cover a large area with more white ash. Although southwestern British Columbia and the Yukon have not experienced a major volcanic eruption in a long time, the potential for future activity remains. A volcano can be dormant for many centuries while gas pressure slowly builds up in its subterranean chambers. Mount Churchill in the St. Elias is certainly a candidate for a future catastrophic event.


A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin