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Pierre Berton and the National Dream - Part 2 of 10

This is the second in a series of ten posts from an article prepared by Derek Boles, our TRHA historian on the occasion of the 35th Anniversary of the Groundbreaking TV "National Dream" Series - Russ Milland

By the mid-1960's, Berton had become a celebrity through his frequent television appearances and he became acquainted with CPR president N.R. Crump. "Buck" Crump was keen about railway history, was much more enthusiastic about a book, and pledged company resources to the project. Berton also hired a researcher, Norman Kelly, currently a Toronto City Councillor, to do the legwork and gather information and work began in 1966.

Although Kelly's CPR research was thorough, Berton kept on pressing him for the kind of detail that would make his books so popular with mass audiences: the weather on a particular day, what people wore and ate, popular culture at the time, what it was like to live in cities, etc. Berton also wanted to amplify the story of the Chinese workers who helped build the railway, which was not generally known at that time.

Berton began working on the book full time in 1968, with visits to the National Archives to read John A. Macdonald's original correspondence. He also struggled to decipher the almost illegible letters of CPR's first president George Stephen. The CPR subsidized Kelly's research trips, putting him up in company hotels and having him tour the line surrounded by divisional engineers and superintendents. In July 1968, Crump provided Berton with the exclusive use of a business car for a transcontinental trip out west. One request that Crump refused, despite a personal appeal from Berton, was access to CPR financial records from the 1880s, which were locked in the vaults at Windsor Station.

While Berton was writing the book, Canada was undergoing a profound change. Soon after the optimism of the Centennial year and Expo '67, the country was suffering through an identity crisis exacerbated by the separatist movement in Quebec and many Canadians were questioning the viability of sustained nationhood. Berton decided that the book would emphasize the importance of the transcontinental railway in uniting Canada and he cast the railway's construction as an epic battle between man and the environment. As a result of feedback to his early drafts of the book, Berton also highlighted the Riel Rebellion and the CPR's role in transporting troops to quell that uprising.

By Derek Boles, TRHA Historian

Click here to read Part 3.
Click here to return to Part 1.

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