Up the creek without attribution

While discussing hilarious and terrible canoeing anecdotes with some friends, a famous line popped into my head: “A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe.” I initially thought it was Pierre Elliot Trudeau, but a quick search revealed two things: that the usual attribution is to Pierre Berton, and also that it’s “the most famous line [he] never spoke.”

Radio host Peter Gzowski, whose interviews I was raised listening to, wrote in his book The Private Voice (quoted here):

Pierre says he didn’t say it, or if he did he took it from someone else, but whoever the authority is, if that’s the test, I fail. I do know how to gunwale a canoe…, portage it, right it without getting out of the water, and sail it home with my hockey sweater tied to a paddle. But make love? You got me.

Who knows who wrote it? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It is a 👻 ~mystery~ 👻. As Brit Mandelo says in an essay on Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, “the history of women writers as friends, as colleagues, as individuals, as a group — is written on sand.” And yet, we know who said this. Berton’s biographer tells the story:

At that moment it was likely the woman and not the moon or the music or the canoe that drew him to her. Yet in the hourglass of memory it was the canoe and the country to which he gave credit. “A Canadian,” Berton is believed to have proclaimed, “is somebody who knows how to make love in a canoe.” […]

Ma Murray
Ma Murray, from Library and Archives Canada

The legendary observation concerning the canoe first appeared in 1973, when the writer Dick Brown attributed it to Berton. Berton did nothing to dispel the notion. Janet [Berton’s wife], however, came to hold another view. She acknowledged the first kiss at Cultus Lake, and that it may have taken place in a canoe, but as far as she knew, the author of the “love in a canoe” quip was not Pierre but Ma Murray, the outspoken British Columbia newspaperwoman people variously dubbed “the Rebel Queen of the Northwest” or “the Salty Scourge of Lillooet.” Her daughter, Georgina, worked for a time at the CBC – and this, Janet thought, helped the quotation circulate.

Margaret Lally “Ma” Murray seems like she was pretty cool lady. It’s a funny line – as she would say, “that’s fur damshur” – so I’m damshur happy to be able to point to its rightful author.