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Barry Broadfoot

Barry Broadfoot 1997

Barry Broadfoot“What the hell. I wasn’t born to be Tyrone Power.” — Barry Broadfoot

In 1997, Barry Broadfoot received the third George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia.

The pioneer of ‘oral history’ in Canada was born on January 21, 1926 in Winnipeg. He worked for a year on The Winnipeg Tribune before enlisting in the infantry, 1944-45. Under the auspices of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he attended the University of Manitoba where he edited the university student newspaper, the Manitoban.

After graduating from the University of Manitoba in 1949, he worked primarily as a journalist with the Vancouver Sun for 29 years. He said he originally came to the West Coast due to “wanderlust and the refusal to endure another bloody winter.” While at the Vancouver Sun he published his first book, Stanley Park, An Island in the City (1972), with photos by Sun photographer Ralph Bower.

Broadfoot left the Sun to travel across Canada, interviewing for Ten Lost Years, a landmark volume of ‘oral history’ about the Depression era that has been the subject for two films and many stage productions.

Broadfoot’s best-known oral history — he called them ‘Living Memories’ — remains Ten Lost Years (1973), his collection of stories from ‘survivors’ of the Great Depression, edited by Douglas Gibson. It was published by Doubleday and re-issued much later by McClelland & Stewart.

Broadfoot’s other major works include Six War Years (1975), The Pioneer Years (1976) and his study of Japanese-Canadians, Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (1977). Broadfoot’s other ‘oral histories’ include The Veterans’ Years (1985), The Immigrant Years (1986), Next Year Country (1988) and Ordinary Russians (1989). The Pioneer Years is about homesteading in western Canada. Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame is about internment of Japanese Canadians.

“History is the lies you believe,” Broadfoot once told the Globe & Mail’s Liam Lacey. “It’s being rewritten all the time because generals, industrialists and academic historians all serve different interests.” Broadfoot’s name is absent from the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada.

“The academic historians resent what I do because they say it isn’t history and somehow I’m taking away from the pool of money that might go toward history books. But the people I talk to have no vested interests, beyond the desire to tell their stories as honestly as they could. Precious memories and our heritage.” For his final book, he travelled 12,000 miles in the Soviet Union to publish Ordinary Russians.

“I never went the tourist route once,” he said. “I kept to the backroads. In places like Georgia I’d go off the main highway and the blacktop would be so full of potholes cars couldn’t use it. So the peasants had graveled in the ditch and were using the ditch as the road.”

Broadfoot vowed to quit writing in 1989 but he later wrote a book on logging and collected materials for a project called Broadfoot’s B.C., based on his experiences since he came to B.C. as a newspaperman in 1949. “It’s about people I’ve met in every village, every pub, every isolated corner,” he says. “It’s like taking a 1,000 tons of country rock and refining it down into what I’ve learned about British Columbia and British Columbians.”

This project was never completed. “I’ve been trying to understand the B.C. psyche. I’ve found that mountains seem to influence people. They come off the prairies and the mountains hit them like a sledgehammer blow. In a crazy way it molds an independent, ever-westering character, the British Columbian.”

Broadfoot received the Order of Canada in 1988. With his wife Anne Cornelia, he had two children, Ross and Susan. In 1989, he told Peter Wilson, “I’ve had it. There’s too many books. There’s too many authors chasing too few dollars… Eighty per cent of our dollar value is put into American and British books and then when consider that 20 per cent functional illiteracy thing, and then take French Canada away, take 90 per cent of the Maritimes away, take every farmer who never sees a bookstore away, take all of Newfoundland away, take all the people who live in North Canada away and you’ve got about 18,000 WASPs and we’re trying to sell 2,700 books a year to them. The whole thing’s insane.”

He retired to Nanaimo. In 1991 he donated his literary papers to the University of Manitoba Library. In 1996 Barry Broadfoot received an honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Manitoba. In 1998 he suffered a stroke and, afflicted with a failing memory at age 74, described himself as Dead Man Walking. He died in December of 2003.

Stanley Park, An Island in the City (November House, 1972), with photos by Sun photographer Ralph Bower
Ten Lost Years (Doubleday, 1973)
Six War Years (Doubleday, 1974)
The Pioneer Years 1895-1914 (Doubleday, 1976)

Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (Doubleday, 1977)
My Own Years (Doubleday, 1983)
The Veterans’ Years (Douglas & McIntyre, 1985)
Next Year Country (McClelland & Stewart, 1988)
Ordinary Russians (McClelland & Stewart, 1989)