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Berton, Pierre

  • Berton, Pierre
  • Persona
  • 1920-2004

Pierre Francis de Marigny Berton was a noted Canadian author of non-fiction, especially Canadiana and Canadian history, and was a well-known television personality and journalist. An accomplished storyteller, Berton was one of Canada's most prolific and popular authors. He wrote on popular culture, Canadian history, critiques of mainstream religion, anthologies, children's books and historical works for youth. He was also a founder of the Writers' Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada's writing community. His childhood home in Dawson City, Yukon, now called the Berton House, is currently used as a retreat for professional Canadian writers.

He was born on July 12, 1920, in Whitehorse, Yukon, where his father had moved for the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. His family moved to Dawson City, Yukon in 1921, where they lived until moving to Victoria, British Columbia in 1932. His mother, Laura Beatrice Berton (née Thompson) was a school teacher in Toronto until she was offered a job as a teacher in Dawson City at the age of 29 in 1907. She met Frank Berton in the nearby mining town of Granville shortly after settling in Dawson and teaching kindergarten.

Like his father, Pierre Berton worked in Klondike mining camps during his years as a history major at the University of British Columbia where he also worked on the student paper The Ubyssey. It was here that Pierre met Janet, the senior editor of the Tuesday edition, and they married in 1946. The Bertons raised eight children, including one adopted daughter and one foster son.

Berton was conscripted into the Canadian Army under the National Resources Mobilization Act in 1942 and attended basic training in British Columbia, nominally as a reinforcement soldier intended for The Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. He elected to "go Active" (the euphemism for volunteering for overseas service). He was warned for overseas duty many times, and was granted embarkation leave many times, each time finding his overseas draft being cancelled.

The Bertons moved to Kleinburg ca. 1950. At the age of 31, Pierre was named managing editor of Macleans. In 1957, he became a key member of the CBC's public affairs flagship program, Close-Up, and a permanent panelist on the popular television show Front Page Challenge. That same year, he also narrated the Academy Award-nominated National Film Board of Canada documentary City of Gold, exploring life in his hometown of Dawson City during the Klondike Gold Rush. Berton joined the Toronto Star as associate editor and columnist in 1958, leaving in 1962 to commence The Pierre Berton Show, which ran until 1973.

Berton served as the Chancellor of Yukon College and, along with numerous honorary degrees, received over 30 literary awards such as the Governor General's Award for Creative Non-Fiction (three times), the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humour, and the Gabrielle Léger Award for Lifetime Achievement in Heritage Conservation. He is a member of Canada's Walk of Fame, having been inducted in 1998. He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest decoration, and was also a member of the Order of Ontario.

In 2004, Berton published his 50th book, Prisoners of the North, after which he announced in an interview with CanWest News Service that he was retiring from writing. On October 17, 2004, the $12.6 million CAD Pierre Berton Resource Library, named in his honour, was opened in Vaughan, Ontario. A school in Vaughan, Ontario was also named after Pierre Berton in the York Region District School Board in September of 2011.

Berton passed away at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto, reportedly of heart failure, at the age of 84 on November 30, 2004. His cremated remains were scattered at his home in Kleinburg.

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