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Pierre Berton dead

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TORONTO - Yukon's most famous son, Canadian author and broadcaster Pierre Berton, died Tuesday in a Toronto hospital. He was 84.

Berton died at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital from heart failure.

During his long career, Berton worked as a newspaper columnist, the editor of Maclean's magazine and a broadcaster.

In every role, his trademark humour and eccentric take on the world was evident - as was his trademark bow tie, bushy white sideburns and dramatic cloaks.

Among the many accolades he earned are three Governor General's Literary Awards for non-fiction and two National Newspaper Awards. He was given 12 honourary degrees, and was also made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Berton was born July 12, 1920 in Dawson City, Yukon.

After being educated at the University of British Columbia, he embarked on a career as a newspaper reporter, much to the chagrin of his family.

In 1947, following four years of service in the military, he moved to Toronto, where he rose to become the managing editor of Maclean's at the age of 31.

In 1957, he joined the CBC public-affairs program Close-Up and also became a permanent panellist on Front Page Challenge.

He left Maclean's in 1962 to start his own program, The Pierre Berton Show, which ran until 1973. He also worked on a number of other programs.

His other well-known books include 1956's The Mysterious North, 1958's Klondike and 1992's Niagara.

This year saw the publication of his 50th and final title, Prisoners of the North.

As recently as October, Berton appeared on the CBC satire show, Rick Mercer's Monday Report, offering tips on how to roll a marijuana joint, recommending his book The National Dream as an excellent "rolling surface" and warning about the perils of a loose joint. He said a less-than-firmly rolled spliff could leave unsightly toke burns on one's bow tie.

Berton also told the Toronto Star that he had been a recreational marijuana-user since the 1960s, saying he'd reached a stage in his life where he didn't "give a damn" what he said or what people thought.

Mercer recalled asking Berton to appear on his show after hearing rumours that the elderly Canadian icon liked to smoke pot.

"I just called him, and asked him if he would come on the show and teach Canada how to roll a joint. He immediately said 'Yes, come up to the house. I'd be happy to do so,"' Mercer said.

Mercer spent the day with Berton at his home in Kleinburg, Ont. The comedian called the time spent with Berton one of the "highlights" of his life.

"He was definitely introduced to a whole new audience" by appearing on the show, Mercer added. "But I think what he showed, by appearing on the show, was that he was completely current ... for him to do that was a completely now issue and it was great that he did it."

Mercer said he was saddened to hear of Berton's death, adding: "He chronicled the history of Canada, and he made history exciting."

Author Alice Munro, at her B.C. home, called him "such an important writer in the days when there weren't any."

"He was also an enormously generous man."

She said he was very businesslike when he used to come to her family's bookstore to sign books, "but he was very unsparing of himself."

"He understood the book business very well - not just his own books, but other people's books. He wanted the whole business in Canada to prosper."

Writer Alistair MacLeod said Berton "made the history of Canada come alive."

"He emphasized the importance of our history as distinct from American history or British history or French history. ... And without having written down that record of life within this country, we would all be poorer," MacLeod said from Windsor, Ont.

MacLeod called Berton a "very, very good writer."

"He was able to imbue history with an excitement that a lot of lesser writers might not have been capable of so doing."

MacLeod said Berton was instrumental in encouraging Canadian writing in all its forms.

"He made it possible for a lot of younger writers to believe that you could write in this country and that you could be successful at it, and that the voices from this country have something to say."

One of Berton's final public appearances was in October, when he attended the opening of a new $12.6 million resource library named in his honour in Vaughan, Ont.


Pierre Berton

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