The Future of the North
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 11 Oct 1973, p. 46-56
Berton, Pierre, Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
Personal reminiscences. The role of the north, and the northern wilderness in the lives of Canadians, and in their sense of identity. Many literary and historical allusions. The future of the North. The Canadian Arctic Resources Committee. The governance of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The environment and the use of the resources of the North. Rights of the Northerners. Native rights. The fragility of the northern environment, with examples. History of and problems with the James Bay project. A reiteration of the importance and significance of the North to Canada.
Date of Original
11 Oct 1973
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Full Text
OCTOBER 11, 1973
The Future of the North
CHAIRMAN The President, Robert L. Armstrong


The following quotation from Drifting Home, the twenty-first book written by our guest of honour, pays eloquent tribute to his extraordinary ability to communicate with his readers. It describes a brief portion of the journey in 1972 which he and Mrs. Berton and their family of seven took in three rubber rafts down the Yukon River system, one of the world's last great wild rivers, to Dawson City, the place of his birth. I quote: "As we set off down the lake, the morning is bright and the water is calm. All of these lakes are exquisite when the sun shines. The colours change constantly from Nile green to deep purple and the surrounding hills change colour too, depending on the mood of the weather. Today they are shadowy blue, blending imperceptibly with the frost blue of the sky. The occasional cloud scuds across the mountain tops, its shadow turning the slopes violet. The flanks of the mountains are scarred and pitted by glacial fans and spangled with silver threads of cataracts that hang suspended from the upper ledges. Ahead of us a flock of merganser ducks scoots up from the water and settles again a hundred yards away. Little spotted sandpipers skitter along the banks. Sometimes in the sky we can see a kestrel wheeling and later on a bald eagle is spotted diving for a fish." End of quotation.

How picturesque and fascinatingly descriptive. This prose is pure poetry. I should like to insert here a brief but interesting anecdote concerning an incident that happened to the Berton family about the seventh or eighth day of their journey and in the vicinity of Selkirk. It turns out that another couple were travelling the same route and Mrs. Berton, being close to their boat, called to ask where they were headed. The man said, "My wife and I read a book called Klondike written by a Pierre Berton and were so fascinated with it that we decided to take the trip ourselves." Mrs. Berton, pointing to her husband in one of the other boats, said, "That's the guy over there who wrote Klondike." It turned out that the gentleman involved was a prominent New York City banker and the families are now great friends.

But it is not only through his books, of which the best known are probably The Comfortable Pew, The Smug Minority, The National Dream and The Last Spike, that Pierre Berton communicates so well. He is famous in theatre, television, radio, films, newspapers and magazines as well. His name is a household word to Canadians. He has won three Governor General's Awards for his books, two National Newspaper Awards, a Canadian film award and the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour.

Pierre Berton, whose father travelled from Saint John, New Brunswick in 1898 to paddle down the same Yukon River in the Klondike Gold Rush, has an abiding love for Canada and particularly, the North.

I am pleased to present to this audience Mr. Pierre Berton, who will speak on the subject, "The Future of the North".

Mr. Berton.


Mr. President, guests, ladies and gentlemen. It is quite true, as your President has indicated, that I came from a very strange town, although I was not aware of that when I lived there. I don't suppose any of us really is. Dawson is unique; there is nothing like it anywhere in the world. But I did not know it was unique, and I must say until very recently I never thought of it in that way. Yet when I think of it now, I realize what a strange upbringing I had.

I lived in the days before the airplane, in fact, I can remember the first airplane to come to Dawson. I remember the native children trying to catch it because it was a butterfly and then coming to school the next day with perfect airplane models they had carved out of sprucewood. I can remember the sternwheel steamers, three at a time, lined up against the bank of the Yukon River. They do not exist anywhere in the world today. I can remember when 25 cents was the smallest coin we knew. I had never heard of a dime, a nickel or a penny, and milk came around in beer bottles with corks in them-when there was milk.

My background was historical. The ghosts of the gold rush walked the wooden sidewalks of the little town of Dawson City, and we lived with the memories of old men who had been young men and had gone over the trails and down the rivers.

I remember hearing about Diamond Tooth Gertie. My mother knew her. She literally had a diamond in place of a tooth and it served her in good stead many times I think. And there was Cad Wilson, who wore a belt of matched nuggets. There was always one missing and whoever was dancing with her would say "You have a missing nugget, let me replace it"; and the next day a nugget would be missing again for the next dance. And the lady named Nellie the Pig-there were two versions of how she got the name. One was because of the shape of her nose, but the other-and I think this is the correct one-that she once bit off a bartender's ear as a keepsake.

But there was more to it than that. I lived in a house under a wooded hill, and I knew that from my back door, through that hill, all the way north across the Arctic Circle to the cold ocean there was nothing but trees, rivers and rocks-scarcely a human being and probably no white men at all. I lived with the wilderness; it was all around me; and I have no doubt, looking back at it, that this had a great effect on me.

We lived in an area where the caribou came through by the thousands twice each year; where you could pull fish, big fat grayling, out of the Klondike River; where the salmon moved upstream by the thousands at spawning time; where you could take any island you wanted in the river, if you had a boat, and camp on it without asking anybody all summer long.

I took that kind of background for granted and it was not really until I began writing about that country that I realized that it has had a great deal of effect on the kind of person I am-for good or for bad. But then I wonder if that is not true of all of us? We are all shaped by our environment and it is a theory of mine that one of the things that makes us a distinctive people, and I am certain that we are different from any other people in the world, is the presence of this great northern wilderness bearing down on us. Ninety per cent of us live within 200 miles of the American border, but there is not one of us who is not aware of the presence of the North. Every foreign observer who has come here has made that point. Andre Siegfried, years ago, called it "a window out onto infinity".

This great sombre backdrop, I think, has affected our personalities and our temperament. It has made us different from the people to the South. I don't think you can live with the flat, metallic lakes, the brooding firs and pines, and the great expanses of gray rock that stretch all the way from Yellowknife to Labrador, with the naked birches and the rattling aspens, with the ghostly call of the loon and the haunting cry of the wolf, without being a very special kind of person. It is no accident that one of our best known paintings by one of the Group of Seven is called The Solemn Land.

I think the North and the presence of the wilderness have helped to make us a more private people than some others. I think it has made us reticent and thoughtful. I think it has made us careful, sometimes too careful. These are qualities that you see in the North and you see these qualities transmitted right through this country.

Someone wrote, I think it was William Henry Chamberlain, that the presence of the North has bestowed upon us "a sensation of tranquility". If it has, I am all for it.

We are just beginning, I think, to realize that this is one of the assets that we have in this country, a much greater asset than we thought. We have begun to think of the North in broader terms than we have in the past. I must tell you that this was brought home to me forcibly on the trip your Chairman mentioned that we took down the Yukon in 1972. We were like dots on the broad expanse of this great wild river, which rolls on for 2,200 miles. We could go for an entire day without seeing any other form of human life, white or native; only the eagles wheeling in the sky, and the animals; the moose feeding in the swamps, the odd grizzly on the hillside and an occasional lynx. (We saw one sitting on the edge of the water and he stared at us uncomprehending. We realized that the lynx had never seen a human being before.) And the ghosts of the past in the form of little ghost towns all the way down.

As we were drifting down the Yukon, I remembered some years ago writing a piece about a hydro development that had been planned for the North. They were going to take this part of this beautiful river, dam it up, and make a big lake covering most of the country I have described-trees, little ghost towns and all-and run it backwards through channels bored in the coastal mountains into penstocks on the American side to provide power for electrochemical or metallurgical industries.

I must say that in my naivete, fifteen years ago, I did not particularly question that in any kind of critical fashion. That was before I had seen what was done to Tweedsmuir Park by the Kitimat operation, where they drowned half of a National Park, made it impossible to get to the shoreline whether you are a human being or an animal, where the trees form a rotted mass of garbage for hundreds of feet out from the shore because they have raised the water levels there.

As I thought of that hydro development and its twelve million horsepower I told myself: "It's not worth it! No amount of hydro electric power is worth the savage destruction of this beautiful country." But then, you see, until very recently-and I am afraid to a large extent it is an official attitude today, and certainly an industry attitude-we have thought of our North in terms of plunder. It has always been a country of boom and bust, and I know this very well because I was raised in a mining town. Once the plunder is gone, once the gold is torn up from the ground, there is nothing left for people except one thing: the call of the land itself.

I think the future of the North lies in something much more permanent than plunder. I think it lies in the presence of the land largely untouched and its history.

The Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, a small group in Ottawa, which as far as I know is the only independent Committee holding a watching brief on behalf of the public as far as the North is concerned, has recently commissioned a study of the North. It has not been published and it has not been made public but they have given me permission to quote briefly from it. This study makes clear what I think most Northerners have known for some time: that Northern Canada, up until this time, has been treated as a colony of Southern Canada and is viewed largely as a resource hinterland for the great metropolitan centres of Southern Canada (as indeed the prairie country was viewed at the time of the building of the railway as a colony of Montreal and Toronto).

To a very large extent this vast country, the territorial parts of it, is run mostly by civil servants under the Territorial System of government. Ottawa owns and controls most of the land and its resources because most of the land is Crown land. It cedes some of the surface rights to the Territories but it holds the sub-surface rights in the palm of its hand.

The Yukon and the Northwest Territories are governed by regulations that do not have to be examined by Parliament and are not examined by Parliament, and the evidence of the past certainly has been that the regulatory bodies have considered any public discussion or critique of this system as both meddlesome and officious.

Last February the Chairman of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, Douglas Pimlot, wrote the Prime Minister of this country asking that the public, and especially the Northerners (and that includes the native population), be involved in the development plans that are going on in Northern Canada with special reference to oil exploration and the construction of oil pipelines. I will quote you a paragraph from that letter. He said:

"Neither the petroleum industry nor the government has sought the considered views of the public and there is no intimation they intend to do so. We suggest this is a serious misjudgment of the mood of the country."

He asked for a meeting to go into it more deeply. That was eight months ago and the letter has yet to be acknowledged.

You see what concerns most of us who care about the North is that the rights of the Northerners and the problem of the environment-twin concerns-have until now been made subservient to the demands and the pressures of industry.

We in this country still tend to operate on an ancient assumption that goes back to the days of Columbus, that those who can make the most economic productive use of the land and the resources have a superior right to them. We always move the native people whenever we think it is economically necessary (not for them but for us). There is so much evidence of this from all the past that I don't think I need to repeat it to you here.

The authors of the report I have just referred to quote a talk by an Assistant Deputy Minister of Indian Affairs and National Development-a speech in which he refers to the rights of peoples, or lack of rights of peoples. He said this: "Here are 200 people who wanted a ranch of 40,000 square miles and under that ranch we felt there might be some valuable resources that could benefit the same people." In this case they felt that tearing up the ground to get at the minerals was more important than leaving these people on the ranch.

The authors pointed out that there are very large cattle ranches in the Province of British Columbia, owned by white men, from which the natives were driven years ago. They are cattle ranches today because that is the highest order of use that could be conceived of for them. You see, every time we move in on the natives we say we do so because we believe in the greatest good for the greatest number. We say these resources belong to all the people, but in doing this we come very close to operating what has been called the tyranny of the majority. There is not much difference in these past examples than there is in the Soviet Union, where huge hydro-electric developments are taking place in Siberia; or in the State of Brazil where, to the detriment of the native peoples, highways are being pushed right through lands which up until now have been, I would say, the moral property of other races.

But it is not just the native rights we have to be concerned about, it is the land itself. I think the next few years are going to, be absolutely crucial to the future, not only of the North but also to the future of Canada. I think that Northern issues have to be given much greater priority than they have and must be the subject of much wider discussion. You see we are very, very lucky because up until now about eight-tenths of our country is relatively unspoiled. I must say I winced when, floating down the Yukon out of Whitehorse, I saw that great mountain of garbage toppling from the high bank into the Yukon River and polluting it for a hundred miles; but rivers can clear themselves up very quickly if we take steps to let them do that.

If you travel the North you will see that we have not yet loused it up. That is nothing but an accident of history-it has been too far away and too expensive to get there. But we haven't yet done to the North what we have done to the South. So there are no costly roll-backs involved in preserving this last great wilderness. Thus we can profit by the mistakes of other people, by the mistakes we have made, and the mistakes that have been made in other countries.

We have to remember that the North in many areas is very fragile. Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.

Things grow very slowly in the North. Up in the tundra around Coppermine I saw little vines about as thick as my little finger. They were actually birches and willows. If you cut through these vines and put them under a microscope you will see as many as 50 to 100 rings. That is how old they are and that is how long it takes them to grow. There is an even more dramatic example from history which I like to quote. When Leopold McClintock in 1853 was searching for the lost Franklin Expedition, and travelling across the tundra with its lichens and mosses, he came upon a set of cart tracks so fresh looking they seemed to have been made the previous day. But he knew that those tracks had been made by Sir Edward Parry, another Arctic explorer, thirty-three years before. Hardly a speck of moss had grown over them.

Refuse, garbage, human excrement take a long time to rot in a cold climate. The problem of pollution in many areas of the North is far more fearful than it is here.

We are now faced with the whole question of the giant pipeline coming down the Mackenzie Valley, and we have in this country a chance with that pipeline to build a model for the development of the rest of Canada. I am not suggesting that we do not build the pipeline, but I am suggesting that we look before we leap and that when we do, or if we do, we learn something from the past and from the present because we have some horrible examples.

One is the James Bay project. It's a mess. It's in dispute in the Courts, and it's quite clearly an example of not only poor planning but probably lack of planning. It is also an example of something else and this, I think, is my key point today, ladies and gentlemen: that is the ability of regulatory bodies and agencies of provincial governments to effectively close all avenues of public participation and to keep all information tightly sealed. The idea that the public should have any rights is a novel one to government. It has always been a novel one to bureaucracies, and I suggest that we have to get out of this secrecy syndrome or we will stumble on from one debacle to another in the hinterland.

Nobody is suggesting, and I am certainly not, that all resource development be stopped in the North of this country. I am simply suggesting we start looking first and leaping second.

The CARC, the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, is very strong in the belief there ought to be a forum for discussion that is independent of government and that is independent of industry (there is not one at the moment), that could add its voice to future planning.

I have seen a great deal of this North country myself, not just the Yukon which is my home country and which I return to from time to time, but the whole of the North.

I have seen one of the most beautiful lakes in the North, Kluane Lake, where there are measurably nine different shades of green and purple from the margin to the centre.

I have seen the St. Elias Mountains, the highest on this continent, and the Great Nahanni Valley with its mile-deep gorges and its waterfall twice as high as Niagara, which is now, thank God, a National Park-saved at the last moment from the oil interests.

I have seen the Great Mackenzie Valley and the fantastic sight of the Mackenzie Delta, one hundred and fifty miles of wriggling channels and little ponds. I have seen it from the air at sunset. Somebody once described it as a giant mirror splintered into ten thousand pieces shining up at you.

I have seen the Arctic islands with their caribou and reindeer. I have seen those geological and alluvial oddities with the elfin names: Pingoes and Polygons and Eskers and Drumlins.

I have seen the herds of muskox moving across the Barren Lands.

I have seen the remnants of the ice age which are still there to be seen and nowhere else in this country. We have covered them over or chopped them down.

I have seen the Yukon freeze up in the fall and I have seen Hudson Bay break up in the spring. I have seen Baffin Island and the Torngat Mountains of Labrador and the Arctic islands.

I don't want to see this beautiful country trampled over or exploited or wrecked haphazardly. As you know, we regret that we made so many mistakes in the South. Well, we now have the chance to profit by those mistakes in the North.

We have the one thing that people all over the world are crying for: we have open space, wilderness space, wild rivers. Gold, base metals, copper, oil are all depleting resources but a river goes on forever and so does the tundra if we don't stamp all over it. There is so much we need to know about this country before we plunge into it blindly. We haven't really taken a wildlife inventory, we haven't done the forest regeneration studies that are needed, or the soil studies or the land use studies. We don't really know what to save, or what to exploit, or where we should do these things. We have a priceless asset but it is a perishable one. Undoubtedly a good deal of it has to be made available for exploration, for mining, for forest development, for agriculture, for hydro power and for tourists too (something we sometimes forget) but not all of it. I think a lot of it should be left alone, certainly for the present, or kept for the people who had it first.

It has always seemed to me, and I was raised with them, that the native peoples realized long before we did what the true value of this country is. I always like to tell the story of the Dog Rib Indian and the Oblate Priest. The Dog Rib Indian said to the Priest, "Tell me, Father, what is the white man's Heaven?" And the Priest replied, "It is the most beautiful place in the world." Here is what the Indian said. He said "Tell me, Father, is it like the land of the little trees when the ice has left the lakes? Are there great musk oxen there? Are the hills covered with flowers? There will I see caribou everywhere I look? Are the lakes blue with the sky of summer? Is every net filled with great, fat whitefish? Is there room for me in this land, like our land, the Barrens? Can I camp anywhere and not find that someone else has camped? Can I feel the wind and be like the wind? Father, if your Heaven is not like all these, then leave me alone in my land, the land of little sticks."

And if you set that to music it might make a pretty good National Anthem.

Mr. Berton was thanked on behalf of The Empire Club of Canada by Mr. G. E. Peter Eastwood, C.D.

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The Future of the North

Personal reminiscences. The role of the north, and the northern wilderness in the lives of Canadians, and in their sense of identity. Many literary and historical allusions. The future of the North. The Canadian Arctic Resources Committee. The governance of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The environment and the use of the resources of the North. Rights of the Northerners. Native rights. The fragility of the northern environment, with examples. History of and problems with the James Bay project. A reiteration of the importance and significance of the North to Canada.