Barry S. Broadfoot, LL.D., October 24, 1996
Barry S. Broadfoot

Canada's best-known chronicler of the ordinary person, a journalist-turned- sweatshirt historian, Barry S. Broadfoot has been writing since his early Manitoba boyhood. Born in Winnipeg in January 1926, to Samuel and Sylvia Broadfoot [who,by the way at age 97 is with us today], Barry had written most of a novel by the age of 11. Later, as a teenager, he was a copy boy and junior reporter for the old Winnipeg Tribune. After attending Riverview, Lord Roberts and Kelvin High, he opted for the University of Manitoba, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 after a two-year tour with the Canadian Army during the war. Along the way he worked on the UMSU Council while continuing his love-affair with the pen and typewriter serving as editor of the Manitoban for 1947/48.

His passion for the written word and for the human story inevitably took him into his first career as journalist first with the Winnipeg Tribune, then with the Vancouver News Herald, the Edmonton Bulletin, the United Press and eventually with the Vancouver Sun where he spent 19 years as reporter, columnist and editor. At the age of 47, he decided to leave the newspaper business to start out on a new adventure - a career that would take him into living rooms and parlours, cafes and diners, across this broad land in search of the stories of the every-day Canadian.
With abundant energy and an insatiable desire to gather and on paper the recollections and reminiscences of a generation, Broadfoot set out on his own saga of adventure- to capture and record on tape the stories of an embarrassment and a shame in our history - the story of the Great Depression.

Convinced that too many history books were being written without emotion or unable to communicate the depth of feelings and hurt brought on by this economic blight in our history, Broadfoot set out across the land interviewing, listening, recording and editing. Out of it came his first and best-known work - Ten Lost Years (1973) - that quickly sold over 100,000 copies, rivaling most Canadian book sales of the time.  It was the launching of a second career and we, his readers, will forever be the richer for it.

Flush with success and armed with purpose, he returned to the field, the vast Canadian homeland. In rapid succession, his work with tape recorders and oral histories led to the publication of several other books - Six War Years, (1974), The Pioneer Years (1976), Memories - The History of Imperial Oil Limited (1980), Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (1983), My Own Years (1984), The Veterans' Years (1985), The Immigant Years (1986), Next-Year Country (1988), and, for his first attempt outside Canada, Ordinary Russians (1989). Whether about the displacement of Japanese Canadians during World War Two, the precarious life of the Canadian prairie farmer, or the struggle of immigrants to make a living in the Canadian west, each book has successfully captured the feelings, the emotions, and the stories of the everyday Canadian.

Broadfoot, now living in Nanaimo, B.C. with his wife, Lori, likewise a former University of Manitoba student, does not pretend to be Canada's greatest historian. Nor does he claim to be its finest writer. But he may well be its best listener and its favourite recorder. "I call myself a chronicler," he once said of himself, "a collector of peoples' tales and stories. A modern memory man ... a collector of people." And "I want to give people their heritage," he said on another occasion. "I want to put it in a ball so they can hold it and touch it and squeeze it - so Canadians can feel their history in their hands."

His vocation has become an important complement to traditional academic histories, and one far more widely read. He has used his tape recorder as the professional historian does the archives: to reveal perceived truth about an event or an era. He brings to us the raw material of history, the recollections of the unheralded and the unpublicized. While others have sought the critical edge and the perceptive analysis, Broadfoot has deliberately woven out of the fabric of many thousand remembrances, the larger tapestry of our time.

What sustained him and what accounts for over a half-million sales of his various books is "the simple poetic language of the people." Unlike many academic historians, Broadfoot has had his eye - and ear - on the common man and woman, their special reminiscence or remarkable story. In this sense he is a social historian par excellence. "Every one has one wonderful experience," he once remarked, "they want to share. Then it's like a chain hanging down and they go from one to another." His genius and his talent has been the relentless drive to track it down, squeeze it out, run it through and make it live for all Canadians - indeed for all readers everywhere.

Back in 1991, Mr. Broadfoot saw fit to donate his rich collection of papers and writings, including two unpublished novels, to the University of Manitoba's Dept. of Archives & Special Collections, one of the country’s best resources for the study of prairie Canadian literature. He said at that occasion that if he had a chance to write his own epitaph, it would probably read: "He gave Canadians the real story of their lives." We were pleased then to recognize his work and we are even more honoured now to present him this honorary degree.