Earlier this year at the annual Vimy dinner at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto, (former) Hon. Col. John Selkirk (of the Brockville Rifles), rose to thank the dinner’s keynote speaker. Broadcaster, author and journalism professor Ted Barris had just completed a 60-minute visual and impromptu presentation on the Battle at Vimy Ridge, in honour of the battle’s 90th anniversary.
“Our history has a friend in Ted Barris,” he said. “The stories of individual Canadians and their extraordinary achievements will never be lost if they are in his hands.”
Writing military history was not Ted Barris’s first choice. Like most writers, he began his writing career in search of stories, and, like his father (Alex Barris) before him, has established a solid reputation for getting the facts straight and telling the history well.
Born in Toronto in 1949, Ted knew in grade school he wanted to become a writer. Coincidentally, it was during his research for a term paper – The Causes of the War of 1812 – and at the urging of an inspirational elementary school teacher (Mike Malott) that he fell in love with history and historical writing. The practical side of writing hit him early, however, because while attending high school, he earned spending money by contributing stories on high school activities to the neighbourhood weekly, the Agincourt Mirror.
In 1968, Barris entered Ryerson Polytechnical Institute’s three-year Radio and Television Arts program. Again, he used his newfound skills to land part-time work hosting the weekend all-night show at CJRT FM and occasionally reading news on CBC Radio. He also explored documentary, for the first time, co-writing and co-producing half a dozen radio docs for CBC Radio’s weekend youth program, Action Set, hosted by Al Maitland and John Kastner. Though he graduated with an RPI diploma, he eventually returned to his studies, made up the credits required and received his Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson University in 1976 (receiving his degree at the same graduation as his wife Jayne MacAulay – they had married in 1975).
Drawn initially to journalism associated with entertainment coverage, in the early 1970s Barris wrote freelance music reviews for the Globe and Mail, and a number of Canadian show-business magazines such as Wingit, Pop and Grapevine; he also had longer features published in such Canadian periodicals as Canadian Composer and RPM Magazine as well as American magazines Rolling Stone (San Francisco), Film News (New York) and Country Sky (Los Angeles). This writing put him in line for a staff position with Warner Bros. Records in the company’s artist and repertoire department, but instead he moved west to work in radio and television. For two years he worked on staff at the University of Saskatchewan, writing, directing and editing educational TV. One short film he wrote and directed – a public service message about noise pollution – won the White Owl Conservation Award (Montreal) in 1973.
While residing in Saskatoon, Barris discovered data about the earliest days of steam navigation on western Canada’s major waterways; he learned that there were first-hand witnesses, diaries and files in local archives brimming with similar material; so he set about tracking down the sources for a potential manuscript. On receipt of a Canada Council grant in 1974, he began researching, interviewing and writing his first book – Fire Canoe: Prairie Steamboat Days Revisited (McClelland and Stewart, 1977). The book was technically a bestseller, but enjoyed sales principally in western Canada. The book gained additional attention when the federal government decided to recognize western Canadian steamers with a series of commemorative postage stamps.
In 1978, Barris took up freelancing fulltime – as a journalist and broadcaster – moving back and forth across the country as work demanded. In print, he was published in both national and regional press, while on-air he contributed to numerous CBC Radio programs (including Morningside, Arts National, Sound of Sports) and to National Public Radio (Washington, D.C.). He also story-produced for several shows on TV Ontario during this time and wrote a syndicated TV pilot, Whatever Happened To…? about historic figures, events and phenomena. His documentary work was again recognized in 1978, when his conversations with witnesses in The Sinking of the Titanic aired on CKO, earned him the International Billboard Radio Documentary Award (New York).
Taking up residence in Edmonton in 1979, Barris returned to his writing of history as a focus for much of his freelance work and income. He wrote scripts for the Alberta Educational Communications Authority (ACCESS), including documentaries on Aboriginal and Metis life, as well as a series of history documentaries called The Alberta Experience, which celebrated the province’s 75th anniversary year. His scripting on the CBC TV show Tommy Banks Live helped earn the show a CBC TV Prix Anik Award (1981); he was an ACTRA Award finalist (1979) for scripting the variety special A Little Part of Canada (co-written with his father, Alex Barris); and his script for the NFB documentary Elk Island: Prairie Sanctuary won the 1985 Golden Sheaf award at the Yorkton Film Festival. In that ten-year period in Alberta, as well, he served as regional president of the Alberta branch of the ACTRA Writers’ Guild.
Again he contributed regularly to periodicals in the region, including book reviews for Western Report, and features for Edmonton Magazine and Western Living. During his stay in Edmonton he also wrote his next three books – Positive Power: The Story of the Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club (ESP, 1983); Rodeo Cowboys, the Last Heroes (Prairie Books, 1985); and Spirit of the West (Key Porter, 1987). When Hurtig Publishers began preparing entries for its new Canadian Encyclopedia (1985), Barris was invited to write several history entries ranging from sport to navigation to wartime material.
Using Toronto as his base again in the late 1980s, Barris began writing a syndicated weekly column, called The Barris Beat (it is now in its 16th year) and he freelanced on-air principally for CBC Radio (as backup host for such programs as Metro Morning, Ontario Morning, Radio Noon, etc.) He began writing for Facts and Arguments in the Globe and Mail and when the National Post came on the scene in the 1990s, he wrote features for its Issues and Ideas section. He also moved to feature writing for such national periodicals as 50Plus magazine and Masthead magazine. And his features focusing on Canadian military history began appearing in Legion magazine, the Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal, Airforce magazine and Esprit de Corps.
Documentary radio and periodical writing about Canadian military history led to longer manuscripts and the first of his military books – Behind the Glory: The Plan that Won the Allied Air War (Macmillan, 1992); Days of Victory: Canadians Remember 1939-1945 co-authored with his father, Alex Barris (Macmillan, 1995); and Deadlock in Korea: Canadians at War 1950-1953 (Macmillan, 1999). All were bestsellers in hardback and paperback. Macmillan also published his book Playing Overtime: A Celebration of Oldtimers Hockey (1995).
As a spin-off of his military writing, Barris was invited to join the roster of speakers travelling the country as a guest speaker for the Association of Canadian Clubs. Numerous veterans’ organizations, regimental associations and military museums across the country called upon him for keynote speeches, A/V presentations and Remembrance Day dinners. For instance, he was headline speaker at the Allied Air Forces Reunion (Toronto, 1993), the Billy Bishop Museum commemoration (Owen Sound, Ont., 1994), the 50th anniversary observance of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (Yorkton, Sask., 1995), the Lancaster Museum Reunion (Nanton, Alta., 1996), as well as regular “history night” speaker at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.
In 1993, Ted Barris received the Canada 125 medal “for service to Canada and community.” In recognition of his work documenting the role of Canadian volunteer soldiers during the Korean War, and subsequent presentations of his manuscript material/research on behalf of veterans before the Veterans Affairs parliamentary committee, the Korean War Veterans Association of Canada awarded Barris an honorary lifetime membership in the KVA. In 2000, the University of Toronto invited Barris to submit a learned paper during a conference on Canadian/Korean perspectives in the new millennium; his research was subsequently published in book form as Canada and Korea: Perspectives 2000. He also received a citation of merit for his assistance in awareness and fund-raising for the Durham Public School Board initiative to send high school students from that region to Normandy in June 2004 and to Hong Kong in November 2005.
Academia came calling in 1999. Centennial College’s School of Communications, Media and Design (in Toronto), needed a qualified journalist and broadcaster to teach at its Centre for Creative Communications. At first Barris filled in, teaching both graduate and undergraduate students in the program’s first year. The college invited him back a second year and by 2002 he had taken a fulltime position as professor of print journalism – teaching news reporting, beat reporting, copy editing, online writing, broadcast journalism, law and ethics, and the history of broadcasting. That same year he was a finalist for Centennial College’s Wicken Teaching Excellence Award and received the NISOD Excellence Award (from the University of Texas at Austin). In addition to his teaching duties, Barris has introduced a high-profile Speakers’ Series at the college through which colleagues in the industry – Gwynne Dyer, Pamela Wallin, June Callwood, Linden McIntyre, Carol Off, Royson James, Naomi Klein, Knowlton Nash, Anna Maria Tremonti and Lloyd Robertson, among others – have spoken to Centennial students, faculty and staff. As a continued connection with those celebrated media names, Barris underwrote and introduced the June Callwood Scholarship at Centennial College, the award designed to recognize and assist (with small financial bursary) the work of aspiring communication students with a particular passion for advocacy communications. He also re-instituted Remembrance Day activities at the college; each year since 1999, the communications school has come to a full stop as invited veterans offer first-hand accounts of their wartime experiences during a full November 11 observance.
During this same period Barris completed two other books on non-military subjects. In 1999, he co-authored with Rod Austin Carved in Granite: 125 Years of Granite Club History (Macmillan); and in 2001, he co-authored with Alex Barris Making Music: Profiles from a Century of Canadian Music (Harper Collins). As a long-time member of the Writers Circle of Durham Region, Barris also spearheaded an annual celebration of authors. The “Words In Whitby” series of public interviews (a la Actors’ Studio) allowed writers and fans outside Toronto to witness hour-long conversations on stage as well as autographing sessions with their favourite authors. Over the six years of the event, Barris has interviewed at length such writers as Pierre Berton, Charlotte Gray, David Adams Richards, Wayson Choy, Nalo Hopkinson, Wayne Johnston, Robert J. Sawyer and Joy Fielding.
In 2004, his most popular Canadian history work up to that time was released by Thomas Allen Publishers, on the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. JUNO: Canadians at D-Day, June 6, 1944 was a bestseller on the day it was published and yielded a stream of media appearances, including featured guest on CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition; colour commentator (with Lloyd Robertson) on CTV’s coverage of the D-Day 60th Anniversary as well as CTV’s Canada A.M.; featured historian on TVO’s Studio 2; and keynote speaker at the Empire Club’s tribute to the D-Day anniversary (televised on Rogers Communications).
A rewritten and updated 60th Anniversary Days of Victory edition was published by Thomas Allen Publishers in 2005, as well as a republished edition of Behind the Glory: Canada’s Role in the Allied Air War, completing Barris’s trilogy of books on the Second World War. In honour of Year of the Veteran observances across Canada, he was invited (among other places) for a return visit and speaking engagement at the Empire Club of Canada in December 2005 as well as the RCMI. Recently, he has also been called upon to offer letters of support and/or endorsements for inductees to the Aviation Hall of Fame, and applicants for the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada. He also appeared on national television in support of the campaign to keep Fred Topham’s WWII Victoria Cross medal in Canada. In March 2006 at the 78th Fraser Highlanders annual dinner, the regiment presented Ted Barris with its 2006 Bear Hackle Award of Excellence. Previously awarded to such military dignitaries and historians as Brig. Gen. Denis Whitaker, Dr. Jack Granatstein, Maj. Gen. Lewis Mackenzie and Dr. Terry Copp among others, the citation noted Barris’s “contribution to Canadian military history and efforts to preserve that Canadian tradition.”
This spring, Thomas Allen released his 15th book, Victory At Vimy, Canada Comes of Age, April 9-12, 1917. The book received national coverage and accolades from most reviewers. In praise of the book, the Calgary Herald said: “through a masterful use of oral histories, personal letters and memoirs…Ted Barris has created a fitting memorial to the ordinary Canadian soldiers at Vimy. The Globe and Mail said Barris “brings back a world from beyond the horizon of living memory.” And the National Post reviewer called Victory At Vimy “ must read.” The book has remained in the top-ten on most major bestsellers lists throughout the spring of this year (2007).
Barris’s growing library of Canadian military books and his regular public appearances to speak about Canadian military history, have sparked an additional activity. For the past four years, Toronto-based Merit Travel has invited Barris to act as historical consultant and guide for veterans’ revisits to Second World War sites – in 2004 to Juno Beach, in 2005 to liberation sites in Holland, and in 2006 to the U.K. to visit the locations where their secret war was waged against the Axis. Then earlier this month, he led a tour to join the 90th anniversary observances at Vimy Ridge, in France. Each tour has attracted scores of veterans, their families and history buffs alike to revisit historically significant locations as Barris offers period anecdotes and perspective of the military events that took place there.
As he completed his remarks of thanks to Ted Barris at the end of the 2007 RCMI Vimy dinner, earlier this month, Hon. Col. John Selkirk passed along his personal gratitude for a moving exclamation point to the evening’s observance, as well as a membership in the institute. He explained that the RCMI could do well to have the likes of Ted Barris and his strong sense of Canadian history closer at hand, more often.