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A Klondike Korner: The Origins of Berton House, Part 2 June 2, 2012

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A Klondike Korner: The Origins of Berton House, Part 2

By Dan Davidson

April 2, 2012

What’s Up Yukon, April 12, 2012

When I left this history, Pierre Berton had bought back his childhood home for $50,000 in 1989 and had donated it to the Yukon Arts Council, which collaborated with the Klondike Visitors Association in setting up the Berton House Writer-in-Residence Committee to make decisions about how to handle the property.

In 1991, about a year after those early discussions, I was asked to join the group. The other local names that appear most often in my files are Helen Winton, Joann Vriend and Leslie Piercy. Our meetings were held via conference telephone at Yukon College, in a room that is currently one of the studio classrooms at the Yukon School of Visual Arts.

On the other end of the line, sitting in Whitehorse, were Jack Wenaus, Sharon Sweeny and Richard Lawrence, to name a few names that turned up regularly.

We researched residency programs from all over the country and nevertheless came up with a project proposal which is quite unique as such things go. Most of them involve teaching some classes or having regular office hours to be available for public consultation as a part of each day. Most are connected to colleges and universities.

This one had none of those features.

The program was to be managed by the Berton House Writers Retreat (BHWR) committee, with on-site financial and maintenance assistance from the Klondike Visitors Association (it funded the building’s $97,000 restoration) and local scheduling by the Dawson Community Library. Regular contacts on its board have been Suzanne Saito (now retired), Betty Davidson, Kathy Webster and Bonnie Barber, plus a succession of public librarians.

We were ready to launch in 1996, with Pierre and Janet Berton and sister Lucy Berton Woodward in attendance. Russell Smith, of Globe and Mail fame, was the first writer and he just about finished a book while he was here.

Writers residing at Berton House really have only two obligations. The first is to give public readings in both Dawson and Whitehorse. The second is to experience the Yukon and allow it to influence their work. They may be writing about the North, or not. They may be writing history, essays, poetry, fiction or children’s books.

Then there are optional activities, which occur at the authors’ discretion.

Most writers also interact with the Robert Service School at whatever grade level is most appropriate during the months that school is in session. The way the schedule is set up means that there is at least one month in each residency when this might happen.

Some offer writing classes through the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture. Recently, some have given a reading or lecture at Yukon SOVA. Some meet with the sporadically functioning local writers’ group or participate in oral readings at the Library. Some will look at manuscripts or comment on the work of aspiring writers.

Some will be on deadlines and will be almost hermits at the residence, but there aren’t many that do this.

Some bring their spouses and even their children with them, though these are the exception, and the house has only one bedroom since the makeover by the Designer Guys in 2006.

It was two years before the residency dared to go year round, and we found it was better for the building itself to be occupied once we had done that. So what began as a seasonal program evolved into one with four three-month seasons and has attempted to be so ever since, always managing at least three.

Most of the residents have been from Outside, though there have been a few last minute cancellations that opened the program up to Whitehorse writers. When I had the pleasure of looking through the applications, there were about 70 of them annually, and that seems to have remained constant since then.

When the Yukon Arts Council withered away, the Berton House Writers’ Retreat committee remained, headed by Yukon News publisher Steve Robertson, who also assisted with his credit card at times when cash flow was a problem.

When it appeared that the Canada Council for the Arts was going to withdraw some essential funding, the BHWR chose to shelter under the wing of the Writers’ Council of Canada, which is now the major partner in the project, and selects the writers annually. The selection panel includes former alumni and a Yukon or Dawson writer when that it possible.

As noted here two issues ago, our last writer was Lawrence Hill. Tim Falconer joined us two weeks ago and will be here until the end of June. He happens to be one of our Dawson co-editor’s former professors, so you may hear something more about him from her.



* Berton House 2 – While the signs clearly identify that the building is a residence and is occupied, and a interpretive stand with plaques at the bottom of the lane explains everything about it, summer tourists have been known to hold cameras and video recorders right up to the windows and, on several occasions, to walk right in with cameras running.



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