01 December 2004

Canada's Chronicler

      It's hard to believe, but Canadian writer Pierre Berton, so long an icon of Canada and its history, has died at age 84.   For those outside of the Great White North, it's probably impossible to imagine Berton's significance, because I can think of no adequate equivalent to him in other cultures, a hugely prolific writer and novelist (he just completed his 50th book) that was also a staple of contemporary television and radio culture, a face as familiar as just about any celebrity in Canada.   He was, even more perhaps than his predecessor E. J. Pratt, Canada's great chronicler, to say nothing of his being one of the country's most-read contemporary commentators.   This is a great loss.   To put all this in context for my non-Canuck readers: the nightly news on the CBC's The National led with the story, and spent the first fifteen minutes covering Berton's death and reaction to it; President Bush's first day of his two-day trip north, which otherwise would have dominated the news utterly, got nudged (or, more accurately, shoved) to being a second-tier story in a time-location more usually devoted to human-interest stories. In effect, the President didn't get pushed to Page Two-- he got pushed to Section B. And, I dare to say, rightly so. The Canadian poet Miriam Waddington once wrote about Canadians, "scratch us / and we bleed history." No one in our nation's history did so much to get at that blood, and to bring that history to that nation's people as a whole.   The story's still too fresh right now, but I guarantee you that tomorrow and in the days to come Canada as a whole will be haemorrhaging with histories of its resident historian, a man so long part of the cultural furniture that most of us couldn't imagine him not being there. Wow. It's just hard to believe.

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