"Mr. Burk Is Most Interested in Their Welfare":
J.G. Burk's Campaign to Help the Anishinabeg
of Northwestern Ontario, 1923-53
Author: Kuhlberg, Mark

Journal of Canadian Studies, 45(1), pp. 58-89.


Although there is a small but growing body of literature on Euro-Canadians who acted "with good intentions" towards the First Nations (Haig-Brown and Nock 2006), precious little has been written about those within the ranks of the Department of Indian Affairs who acted benevolently towards the Aboriginal peoples. James Gerry Burk, Indian agent for the Anishinabeg of the western Lake Superior region for three decades (1923-53), was one such individual. He chose to ignore the department's prevailing racist ideology in favour of nurturing the incipient desire for industry and enterprise that he saw first-hand among the Aboriginal constituents of his agency. In the process, he was compelled to overcome numerous obstacles that Indian Affairs placed in his way. As a result, Burk's career stands as a glowing testament to the indomitable spirit of one departmental official's commitment to assisting the Aboriginal peoples.


Il existe un petit nombre, toujours croissant, de documents sur les Euro-Canadiens ayant agi avec bonne volonté envers les Premières Nations (Haig-Brown et Nock, 2006). Cependant, on retrouve peu d'écrits sur les représentants du ministère des Affaires indiennes qui ont fait preuve de bonne volonté à l'égard des peuples autochtones. M. James Gerry Burk, représentant de la nation Anishinabeg de la région ouest du lac Supérieur pendant trois décennies (1923-1953), était ce genre de personne. Il a décidé de passer outre à l'idéologie raciste populaire au sein du ministère pour encourager le désir naissant de participer à l'industrie et au commerce qu'il a observé personnellement chez les gens représentés par son organisme. Dans le cadre de ce processus, il a dû surmonter de nombreux obstacles érigés par le ministère des Affaires indiennes. En conséquence, la carrière de M. Burk est un exemple frappant de l'esprit indomptable et de l'engagement d'un haut fonctionnaire de ministère à prêter secours aux peuples autochtones.

Much has been written about the degree to which the federal government mismanaged practically all facets of Aboriginal people's affairs. The literature that has chronicled Ottawa's administration of First Nations' natural resources (everything from coastal fishing rights to interior water powers and minerals), education, and social welfare has spoken with practically a single condemnatory voice.1 In attempting to uncover the roots of this deplorable record, numerous authors have indicted senior officials within the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA), who were prejudiced and obsessed with bullheadedly assimilating Natives, paring expenditures and concentrating power in their hands.2 Those who have chronicled the work done by the DIA's field agents have drawn the same conclusions. The few first-hand accounts by Aboriginal peoples, for example, have cast these bureaucrats in a negative light.3 This perspective is echoed in Robin J. Brownlie's recent ground-breaking monograph on the tenure of two Indian agents in Ontario. She writes that the DIA's "records strongly support the argument that Indian agents in the twentieth century were a primary source of oppression for Aboriginal people. These officials acted in ways that reinforced the subordination, marginalization, and disempowerment of First Nations people.... The agent was one of the primary means by which federal officials secured and maintained government domination over First Nations people" (2003, xii).

The evidence indicates, however, that it is premature to consider the case closed. Historians have begun looking at the work done by those Euro-Canadians who interacted with Natives "with good intentions" (Haig- Brown and Nock 2006). These authors stress that their intention in doing so is not to be apologist but rather to re-create more accurately the nuanced web of relations that connected the two groups. The upshot is the story of a handful of individuals - ranging from academics and missionaries to supportive wives and eccentric pack rats - who saw injustices in relations with First Nations and tried to address them (Haig-Brown and Nock 2006). Nevertheless, even this perspective fails to examine the forces for "good" within the belly of the beast, namely the DIA.4

James Gerry Burk was one such person.5 As the Indian agent for roughly 30 years (1923-53) in much of what is now Ontario's Thunder Bay District, he was motivated by neither the fanciful notions of a romantic idealist nor the racist assumptions of his contemporary Euro-Canadians. Instead, Burk's motivation was a desire to help his Native clients in simple and innovative ways that would produce concrete and meaningful improvements in their lives at a time when their very survival was cast into doubt. His actions demonstrated that he believed the Natives were just like him, keen to enjoy an independent existence and capable of adapting to the "modern" economy by being employed in both low- and highskilled jobs within it. This perspective spurred Burk to formulate multiple plans to facilitate economic development in his bailiwick, with the ultimate aim being the creation of a group of autarkic communities. Remarkably, even though this goal resonated with those set out by the DIA's senior policy-makers, Burk's superiors in Ottawa threw myriad obstacles in his way because of their obsession with parsimony, strict insistence upon adherence to their rules and regulations, and a concomitant uncompromising refusal to support initiatives - however prudent - proposed by field officers. Notwithstanding these perpetual encumbrances, he demonstrated a steadfast devotion to staying the course. Burk's career thus testifies to the indomitable spirit of at least one departmental official who battled tenaciously to improve the lives of the Aboriginal peoples.

While this essay endeavours to begin filling a lacuna in the literature, it does so within strict limitations. Its focus is Burk's relationship with the DIA, and it says very little about how the First Nations people in the story felt about the initiatives he launched in their communities and about the agent himself.6 Undeniably, Burk's ventures would have gone nowhere if the Anishinabeg had not worked actively with him, so clearly they did so. Moreover, on occasion his actions were motivated as much by the concerns and desires expressed by the Aboriginal peoples as they were his own views. Burk's career spanned a period during which the Natives of the upper Great Lakes lacked effective guidance. By the 1920s, the voices of Shingwaukonse, Nebenogoching, and Peau de Chat, who had been involved in resource disputes some seven decades earlier when the Robinson treaties had been negotiated, had long been silent. Logic thus suggests that Burk was stepping into a leadership void in a manner that would have been seen as a godsend by many in the relatively isolated Aboriginal communities in northwestern Ontario. Nevertheless, it is conceded that the reader is witnessing in the pages that follow a largely two-sided encounter between the Indian agent and his bureaucratic superiors.

James Gerry Burk was born in Port Arthur (part of present-day Thunder Bay), Ontario, in 1888. Employed locally as a clerk in the early 1910s, he enlisted immediately after war was declared in August 1914, and was gassed and taken prisoner at the Battle of Ypres the following spring. Seventeen months later, he became one of the first "British" prisoners to escape. After arriving back in England, he was injured in a bus accident, hospitalized, and discharged after convalescing in British Columbia. Burk returned to Northern Ontario and landed the job as Indian agent for Port Arthur in 1923 (Canadian Expeditionary Force 1919; Robinson 1919). In this capacity, Burk was expected to be a mere cog in the DIA's bureaucratic machine. While its policy aims of civilizing and assimilating the First Nations had been clear for years prior to the end of the First World War, its inability to achieve them left the department lacking a clear direction for the next few decades. Nevertheless, Brownlie describes how the DIA still retained "policy orientations," namely working towards assimilation and exerting its practically complete control over Aboriginal peoples; the coterie of senior departmental bureaucrats in Ottawa was obsessed with micromanaging field operations. Attesting to this penchant was the requirement during the interwar years that Indian agents submit reams of paperwork documenting practically their every move.7

Burk's new post in Port Arthur brought with it additional challenges. His job was to administer the affairs of roughly a few thousand Anishinabeg living mostly on remote reserves within an enormous tract of land that was centred on the Lakehead; it essentially encompassed the 20,000 square miles that they had surrendered under the Robinson-Superior Treaty of 1850 (see fig. I).8 These First Nations had originally come to the area in the mid- 1700s, and since that time they had generally depended for their sustenance upon hunting, trapping, fishing, gathering, and some small-scale farming of root crops such as potatoes. This lifestyle dictated that they break up into small groups during the lean winter months and congregate during the warm weather season at various sites, often prime fishing locations. Although rebounding game populations in the late nineteenth century boded well for these Anishinabeg, the increasing presence of EuroCanadian trappers presented an unprecedented challenge to their fortunes, as did the inherent conflict that Confederation and subsequent judicial decisions had imposed on Burk's agency. The national government was responsible for administering the Aboriginal peoples and fulfilling its treaty obligations to them, including respecting promises to permit them to continue to hunt and fish off their reserves. Ontario, however, controlled the lands covered by these pledges. Not only had the province demonstrated little interest in respecting them, but it had implemented increasingly restrictive hunting and fishing laws that favoured Euro-Canadians at the First Nations' expense. Ottawa devoted scant energy to defending Aboriginal peoples' interests in this arena (Bishop 1994a, 1994b; Rogers 1994; Chute 1998; Tough 1991).

Burk faced a major hurdle in another realm as well, but here at least there seemed to be a clear solution to the problem. Although conditions in Northern Ontario made it unrealistic to expect the Anishinabeg there to convert to commercial farming, the region supported vast tracts of trees, and many of these stands were composed of species for which there was strong commercial demand. The forest thus represented a cornucopia of employment and income opportunities for Aboriginal peoples, as the DIA exercised control over the woodlands on reserves through regulations it had drawn up to ensure that as many benefits as possible accrued to the First Nations when the trees were cut. Moreover, there was always the possibility of the Anishinabeg harvesting from Crown forest adjacent to their reserves. In both scenarios, the Natives could cut the trees and process the logs into a variety of products. Burk quickly recognized that the welfare of the Anishinabeg in his agency would depend, as it did for the local Euro-Canadians, largely on becoming involved in the forest industry, and so he devoted his professional career to furthering this cause.

Burk's campaign began simply enough. The most obvious way to assist First Nations was to take steps to generate the greatest possible revenue over the long term from the sale of the timber on their reserves to outside parties. To achieve this aim, Burk suggested adopting a novel approach to marketing their wood. The pulpwood (i.e., spruce) on reserves in Ontario was subject to the same export prohibition that applied to that which grew on provincial Crown lands. Nevertheless, the Ontario government had facilitated a robust trade in pulpwood with American mills, and the Lakehead was the funnel through which much of it went south. Burk initiated a campaign for the DIA to lift the embargo on spruce cut from reserves, arguing that doing so would realize an additional $2 per cord of pulpwood. Pointing out that the annual income the Anishinabeg were earning from trapping was dropping precipitously, he asserted that "something must be provided to take the place of this loss. I can conceive of no better plan than to give the Indians an equal chance in the export of their wood with the settlers, which would not only increase their revenue, but also improve their living conditions" (Burk 1924a). Although it took Burk nearly four years, the DIA finally agreed in mid-1926 to implement his idea. At the same time, he sought other means of maximizing the benefits derived from cutting the local Anishinabeg's trees. Most notably, he insisted that the proceeds from timber-harvesting operations on reserves be shared among all members of the communities and not simply a select few.9

Burk knew full well, however, that initiatives such as these would hardly transform the First Nations' world, and so he raised his sights. The department's timber regulations obliged licensees to eliminate fire hazards while operating, take down only mature trees, pay competitive prices for the wood they cut, and submit sworn statements regarding the volume and types of trees they took out each year. If enforced, these rules had the potential to generate enormous returns to the Anishinabeg, and so Burk set out to achieve this end (Indian Affairs 1923).

Doing so proved enormously difficult, almost entirely because of the DIA's actions. Time and time again, Burk reported transgressions of the timber regulations to his superiors in Ottawa and urged them to take corrective action. Just as frequently, headquarters informed Burk that it had matters well in hand, and that he would do well to drop the particular issue he had raised.10

The cases of the Gull Bay and Long Lac Reserves, each covered with valuable trees that were in high demand, provide examples of Burk's commitment to take on officials at headquarters in an effort to defend Aboriginal peoples' interests (see fig. 1). The timber on these tracts was sold in the 1920s, and the licences to them ended up in the hands of Charles W. Cox, a small timber contractor. In the course of operating on the reserves, Cox was clearly cutting more wood than he was reporting to the DIA (and was thus avoiding paying vast sums in timber dues to the First Nations), harvesting recklessly (so much that his activities raised the hackles of Ontario's forestry officials), and arguing on specious grounds for the DIA both to allow him to pay far less for the wood than it was worth and to renew his licences despite his misdeeds. The DIA also permitted Cox to ignore his contractual obligation to provide jobs to local Natives and allowed him to "flip" his licence to the Long Lac Reserve to an American firm in a transaction that netted him an astounding profit of $150,000. Burk constantly pleaded with Ottawa to rein Cox in and monitor his activities to protect the Anishinabeg, poignantly despairing on one occasion: "I do not understand why the Gull Bay First Nation should be the losers" (Burk 1924b). Not only did departmental officials turn a deaf ear to the case Burk presented, but they also shielded Cox's machinations from scrutiny at every turn.11

By the eve of the Great Depression, the DIA's negligence in this regard had become an especially pressing issue for Burk. He informed Ottawa that the recent movement of displaced forest workers into trapping had nearly exhausted the resource and sent fur prices plummeting; parallel developments had had a similar impact on fishing. The combination of these forces had left "the fur in this section ... practically exhausted," and the impact on the Anishinabeg had been predictable (Burk 1931b): "It was indeed pitiful," Burk reported, "to see the poverty of the Indians who heretofore have been able to derive a good living from the hunt," a desperate situation that was driven home to Burk during his visits to the reserves (Burk 1931c). After seeing first-hand the living conditions on the Fort William First Nation's Reserve, for example, he informed Ottawa that he was "flabbergasted at the destitution of some of the homes.... In the majority of cases the children were running around without any shoes or stockings. A great number of kiddies had clothes made from old bran, potato, and flour sacks, and as a result were inadequately dressed for the cold winter" (Burk 1934b). If the department did not insist that Ontario protect the Aboriginal treaty rights to trap and hunt and the situation were "allowed to become progressively worse," Burk prophesied gloomily that "it is only a matter of a comparatively short time until the Indian will be driven to extinction" (Burk 1931c).12

These deplorable conditions undoubtedly caused the Anishinabeg untold physical suffering, but Burk was particularly sensitive to the psychological toll of this state of affairs. In the past, the Anishinabeg could support themselves even during years of low pelt and hide prices by heading to the bush to hunt and fish; however, dwindling animal and fish populations and increasingly restrictive provincial hunting regulations made employing this means of putting food on their tables practically impossible. Burk also realized that Ottawa was disinclined to defend their treaty rights, and he lacked the resources needed to take up the cudgels on this front. With the Anishinabeg facing the spectre of starvation, they had had little choice but to go cap in hand asking the department for rations. Not only did this put added strain on the DIA's coffers, but it undermined the First Nations' confidence and pride in being able to look after their own.

Burk thus set out to create conditions that would allow the local Aboriginal peoples to grow at least enough crops to feed themselves, an aim that, although it was congruent with the DIA's agenda, he sought for reasons all his own. Unlike other departmental officials, his interest in having the Natives take up farming had nothing to do with the promise of "civilizing" them. Rather, his goal was to satisfy both the Anishinabeg's physical need for nourishment and their emotional need for dignity. He succinctly outlined these benefits when he requested a few hundred dollars from Ottawa to pay for the equipment the Pic River First Nation needed to expand its incipient farming effort: "A comparatively small expenditure now is an investment towards the end of providing eventually for the future of these people," Burk explained, "in addition to encouraging the growth of self respect by avoiding, at least, some issue of direct relief" (Burk 1935e; Carter 1990, chap. 1).

Burk also realized the advantages inherent in having the local Anishinabeg emulate the typical agricultural operation found in Northern Ontario. It consisted of cutting timber in the bush during the fall and winter, and running small farms during the warm weather. The agricultural operation would grow a self-sufficient supply of foodstuffs, mostly root vegetables, and raise feed-crops to support very small herds of livestock and draught horses. Engaging in farming, Burk knew, would protect the Anishinabeg against the vagaries of the industrial demand for timber and the DIA's lack of interest in protecting their wood supplies.

Burk presented his economic development strategy for the Aboriginal peoples to the department in the early 1930s. Noting that the Natives residing in the centre of his district, namely around Lake Nipigon, were living in "extremely destitute conditions" and growing increasingly dependent upon the government for relief, he asserted that "the only solution to this problem is to encourage the Indians to take up farming." He pointed out that the soils on the 600-acre Mclntyre Bay Reserve on the lake's southern shore boasted the greatest agricultural potential, and the site also offered easy access to excellent fishing in Grand Bay (see fig. 2). He thus recommended that the department authorize him to pay for horses, farming implements, and instructors, and men who would teach the Natives how to construct inexpensive houses and root cellars: "The Indians if located on this Reserve, could in time become self-supporting" (Burk 1931a; see figs. 3-6).

While the DIA was committed to slashing expenses to a minimum, fortunately for Burk serendipity smiled at this moment. The reserves around Lake Nipigon had recently received minor compensatory payments from the provincial power company for the flooding damage it had caused to their reserves,13 and the money was sitting in their accounts waiting for a good project. In addition, Burk's proposal received wholehearted endorsements from both Donald J. Cowan, the member of Parliament for Nipigon, and Frederick H. Paget, the DIA's chief accountant. Only with this momentum behind it did the department give it the green light (Kuhlberg 2009). Soon enough, the emphasis of his plan shifted. It was prohibitively expensive to transport building materials to the Mclntyre Bay Reserve, so Burk had asked headquarters for permission to purchase a small sawmill and ancillary wood-processing equipment, machinery that the Natives could use to turn the trees found on the reserve into lumber. Almost immediately, the timbering aspect of the Mclntyre Bay project became the community's economic lifeblood. Within months, the operation had produced enough lumber to construct one dozen new houses, and the Natives converted the smaller boards they produced into boxes that were used to ship the surplus fish they were catching to markets in southern Ontario. Christened the "Mclntyre Bay Experiment" by senior departmental officials, its success attracted an increasing number of Natives, which necessitated building more new homes from the lumber the band was producing. The local First Nation also sold its surplus lumber to nearby reserves and filled contracts to manufacture tens of thousands of wooden boxes for non-Native fishermen (see figs. 7-8).

Amidst the economic tumult of the Depression, here was a growing community of Natives that was thriving and economically autonomous.14 As Burk rightfully boasted to headquarters in March 1934, the Aboriginal peoples at Mclntyre Bay had previously been "tubercular," on relief, and living in a most unsatisfactory condition. Now, they were "living in properly constructed homes, receiving sufficient food, and ... working for a living" (Burk 1934a).15

Although the DIA basked in the glow of Burk's successful effort, it tenaciously clung to its policy of providing the least possible assistance, particularly financial, to initiatives of this kind. The entire undertaking at Mclntyre Bay could have been derailed in May 1934 when a fire destroyed its sawmill. While this was devastating news, the millwright reported that the operation could be rebuilt within a few weeks by purchasing a used, portable sawmill for roughly $2,000. Considering that the band had already generated over $5,000 for its capital account, the investment appeared to be prudent. Although the department approved the purchase of the new unit, Ottawa fought Burk's every attempt to get the few additional dollars that were needed to set it up. He grew so frustrated by the battle that he, contrary to the prevailing depiction of agents as having been as stingy as their superiors in Ottawa, ended up using his own money to pay some of the technicians who were needed to install the equipment (Brownlie 2003, xvii).16

It was much the same story when it came to Burk's efforts to enhance other aspects of the Mclntyre Bay project. The reserve's shoreline was partially protected by the peninsulas that formed Grand Bay, but the prevailing north winds kicked up frequent bouts of rough weather that made landing boats there very difficult (fig. 2). Because the community was only accessible by water and it was growing in lockstep with the timber operation, there was a pressing need to build a permanent breakwater to protect the large wharf the Aboriginal peoples had recently erected, the sawmill (which was located near the beach), and the pond in which logs were stored before processing. When Burk asked Ottawa to fund the construction of the breakwater, however, officials there offered him nothing but a few crumbs even after Burk agreed to furnish Native labour and local timber for the project and provided hard evidence that the "temporary" structure headquarters had authorized him to build was grossly inadequate. Burk went ahead anyway and funded the undertaking, unauthorized expenditures for which the DIA promptly rapped his knuckles. Only in September 1937 did the department forward enough money to hammer the last spike into the breakwater (Port Arthur Agency 1934-37).

A similar scenario was played out when Burk turned his attention to creating greater opportunities for the Anishinabeg to engage in more highly skilled work by establishing a canoe and small boat factory at Mclntyre Bay to convert some of the lumber the reserve's sawmill was producing into these value-added products. He was acutely aware that the local Natives made fine watercraft. While there was a very strong local demand for them and they were equal in strength to those constructed by non-Natives, they lacked the same "finish," and this deficiency greatly limited their marketability. This prompted Burk to ask the DIA for permission to hire an expert for six months to teach the Anishinabeg this aspect of the business. He had already identified a suitable candidate, Ernest Whyte, who could be paid his $80 monthly wage out of the bands' own funds. Initially, headquarters was uncharacteristically supportive of the undertaking, and gave Burk the go-ahead to hire Whyte. By this time, Burk had already lined up several boat contracts and obtained orders for 60 pairs of snowshoes that the Natives at Mclntyre Bay were now manufacturing. When Ottawa queried him over this news in January 1936, asking why Whyte was needed if the Aboriginal woodworkers were not manufacturing boats, Burk replied by stating the obvious. There was no demand for boats in the late summer as the cold weather was fast approaching, and so the Anishinabeg had switched to making snowshoes for which they had "a ready market for as many as we can turn out" (Burk 1936a). He assured Ottawa that the facility would convert to boat production at the end of February and that Whyte had been a great help in the interim and would be integral in the future. Burk's explanation satisfied Ottawa, and the operation even diversified into producing toboggans and sleighs in late 1936 (Port Arthur Agency 1935-39).

This success created an unforeseen problem, and the DIA's suggested solution spoke volumes about the bureaucratic barriers Burk faced. By May 1937, he had landed contracts from several clients to build a number of canoes, scows, tugs, and even a cabin cruiser and a lifeboat (see fig. 9). To ramp up production to meet this demand, he required a second consultant to help oversee the operation. To support his case, he explained to headquarters that it was his hope to have the woodworking factory at Mclntyre Bay "accommodate a great number of the younger generation. We have 8 Indian day schools and one residential school in this Agency, and the teachers there all recommend some provision be made to teach the boys over 15 some trade" (Burk 1937b). Senior DIA officials were wary of acceding to Burk's request, however. In their eyes, an application to hire an additional person for such a project would raise eyebrows because no one at headquarters would believe it had grown so much that it required another expert tradesman! "I readily understand the advantage of having adequate instruction and help to complete the contracts," Dr. H. W. McGiIl, the DIA's director, informed Burk, but McGiIl anticipated that they would encounter great "difficulty ... if a requisition [were] made for a second supervisor" (1937b). McGiIl advised Burk to hire the consultant unofficially and tack his wages onto the enterprise's general payroll.

Burk's lengthy record of driving forward, come what may, started attracting attention, and at least a few observers were realizing that his project at Mclntyre Bay had been flourishing for half a decade. Inspector of Indian Agencies Thomas McGookin reported to headquarters in late June 1937 that, five years earlier, the Natives living on reserves near Mclntyre Bay had been transferred there "for health reasons." Thanks to Burk's initiative, McGookin could now report that "splendid progress has been made both from an economic and health viewpoint. The community has become entirely self-supporting through the operation of a saw mill, snow shoe, boat and canoe factory and a co-operative scheme" (McGookin 1937).

Burk was not content to rest on his laurels, and he formulated another, truly revolutionary plan for the Anishinabeg. His strategy involved asking the region's major pulp and paper companies to grant the local First Nations exclusive cutting rights on small tracts of forest within the large pulpwood concessions (e.g., timber licences) that the firms leased from the Ontario government. This would provide the male Anishinabeg with year-round employment, ensconce them in the district's forest economy, and allow Aboriginal families to settle in clusters on their respective timber tracts and increase their farming activities as their small plots were cleared of trees. Furthermore, by proposing that the Natives be relocated within the companies' timber limits, Burk was advocating removing many of them from their reserves. In the spring of 1937, he had done enough legwork to present the proposal to headquarters. By that time, Burk had secured the support of the Lake Sulphite Pulp Company, which had recently been awarded a major pulpwood concession by the provincial government. Burk reported to Ottawa that Lake Sulphite had agreed to provide the "Indians in this District" with as much pulpwood-cutting work as possible, enough in fact to allow for the creation of several small Aboriginal communities that would number in total between 1,000 and 1,200 residents. In addition, the firm had awarded the residents of Mclntyre Bay contracts to construct a number of boats. Burk closed by underscoring the unprecedented nature of this opportunity, especially because Lake Sulphite had asked the Anishinabeg to produce 40,000 cords of pulpwood that first season (Port Arthur Agency 1931-37).

Burk negotiated similar contracts with several other companies to which the Ontario government had recently granted large tracts of pulpwood. One was for the Gull Bay First Nation on the west side of Lake Nipigon, and the others centred on the Pic River watershed some 150 miles east of Port Arthur, on which the Pic River and Mobert First Nations lived (see fig. 1). Between these new projects and the one with Lake Sulphite, Burk estimated that he would create enough employment for those Anishinabeg for whom he was responsible and "approximately 500 additional Indians from other Reserves outside of this Agency" (Burk 1937c).17 News of this remarkable scheme precipitated an equally astounding, if entirely predictable, reaction from Ottawa. The DIA conveyed its approbation and accompanying financial support, and R. A. Hoey, the DIA's superintendent of welfare and training, even assured Burk "of our fullest co-operation," adding, "[we] congratulate you on your success in obtaining this opportunity for your charges." In the same breath, however, Hoey stressed that "I trust that this employment will mean a drastic reduction in relief costs in your Agency" (Hoey 1937a). After hearing that Burk's scheme would create jobs for Natives in other districts as well, Hoey ordered Indian Agents across much of Ontario and Quebec to make arrangements to send their clients to work in his district because doing so would "remov[e] the necessity of supplying relief. If an Indian refuses to work," Hoey explained matterof-factly, "you are instructed to remove him from the relief list immediately, as the Department does not wish to support Indians in idleness who will not attempt to help themselves" (Hoey 1937b). With Natives boarding trains from as far away as the St. Regis Reserve in Quebec to travel to Burk's work camps, the DIA had good reason to lend them the money for their trips.

Just as it seemed that Burk had at long last concocted the elusive elixir for what ailed the local Anishinabeg, forces beyond his control conspired to knock out the cornerstone in his plan. On a wintry February night in 1938, Lake Sulphite suddenly shut down its cutting camps after it unexpectedly filed for receivership (Financial Post 1938). This resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs for Aboriginal woodsmen and meant that they would probably not be paid for the pulpwood they had already harvested and the boats they had built. Equally damaging - if not more so - was the situation at the Mclntyre Bay Reserve. There, Burk's initiative had allowed the Anishinabeg to run a timber-cutting and -processing operation that was virtually self-reliant. By mid- 1936, however, it had become a victim of its own success; the Natives had harvested all the merchantable trees from the reserve. At first glance, Burk appeared to resolve this matter. Over the course of mid-to-late 1936, he had arranged with provincial officials for the Mclntyre Bay Reserve to acquire a timber licence to the fine stand of red and white pine that grew on Crown land in Innes Township that abutted the reserve (see fig. 1); but then Cox, Burk's - and the local First Nations' - old nemesis from both the Gull Bay and Long Lac Reserves, cunningly intervened to scuttle the plan. Cox gained control over the Innes timber limit by winning it in a tender even though he had no intention of harvesting it. He had done so by offering to pay an egregiously large sum for the red and white pine, and the tender's terms had curiously stipulated that the price bid on the timber would not "in any way, be subject to reduction" (Lands and Forests 1936a). Because the local Anishinabeg could never afford to pay such high stumpage rates for these species, which had been central to the operation of their independent forest industry, Cox had essentially terminated its existence in its present form (Lands and Forests 1936b).

Notwithstanding this devastating setback, Burk valiantly pushed ahead, and timber remained foremost in his plans even if he now had no choice but to accept that the Anishinabeg would be mere hewers of wood instead of forest entrepreneurs. He convinced Ottawa to acquire the Innes licence from Cox, but the exorbitant dues on the red and white pine rendered these species practically unharvestable. Burk could apply for permission to cut the jack pine, which could be made into railway ties, that was found on the Innes licence, but this operation would involve relatively enormous capital outlays. It would entail felling the trees and cutting the logs into ties, booming and towing them across open water to Orient Bay some 70 miles away, and then pulling them from the water and loading them onto railway cars. This would require a powerful boat, cables, boom logs, a jack-ladder to lift the ties out of the water, and seasoned personnel who were adept at transporting large volumes of wood on Northern Ontario's oftentreacherous waterways (Port Arthur Agency 1936-41).

Burk was typically undaunted by this challenge, but he soon realized that the DIA's antipathy to funding this project obviated any chance of it succeeding as a strictly Aboriginal undertaking. In late 1937, he secured both consent to cut the jack pine on the Innes licence from Ontario and a contract worth $15,000 from the Canadian National Railway (CNR) for over 20,000 railway ties to be delivered to Orient Bay. The CNR only paid for the goods upon delivery, however, which meant that Burk had to beg Ottawa to advance him the money to deliver the ties to market. Headquarters provided him with the amount he initially estimated would be needed to finance the effort, but in mid-February 1938, CC. Parker, the superintendent of reserves and trusts, informed Burk that Ottawa could not forward any additional funds because "no revenue has been received from the project" (1938). When other officials in Ottawa also refused to grubstake the undertaking, Burk realized that he would need outside help from a non-Native timber contractor. After the tragic death of the first one he found and the refusal of a number of others to take on the project, CE. McDevitt, a bush operator of modest means, got wind of the opportunity.18

With the DIA running out of patience for Burk's latest project - it feared losing the $3,500 deposit the Ontario government had forced it to lodge for the Innes timber licence without having reaped any practical benefits from the expense - he persevered, and in the end, all parties were rewarded for his fortitude. Burk authorized McDevitt to oversee the tie-cutting project on the Mclntyre Bay Reserve over the winter of 1939-40, and both sides enjoyed the experience, which turned out to be a lucrative one as well. In February 1940, DIA director McGiIl reported that the effort had generated a profit of over $9,000 and had employed a large number of Anishinabeg who would have "otherwise, in all probability, require[d] ... relief" (McGiIl 1940). Over the next seven years, between 1940 and 1947, McDevitt harvested the remaining timber on the Innes licence and employed as much "Indian labour" as he could. DIA headquarters recognized that credit for resurrecting this project rested squarely on Burk's shoulders. Burk facilitated the operation in such an efficient manner that it left senior departmental officials in awe. When he provided an update on the enterprise at the end of 1942, for example, describing how McDevitt was employing roughly 60 Natives and paying good wages, DJ. Allan, the DIA's superintendent of reserves and trusts, could not contain his excitement: "In terms of Indian welfare this project," Allan enthused, had been "an outstanding success." Allen passed this news up to McGiIl. Allan recounted how, back in the mid-1930s, the DIA had authorized Burk to obtain the "Innes licence" on the grounds that it would be of "great and lasting benefit to the Indians at Mclntyre Bay... While we operated it ourselves under Mr. Burk's direction it was a perennial headache," Allan reported bluntly, "and I think the statement might be supported that it cost us money." At the very least, it had represented a huge risk in terms of the DIA's $3,500 deposit, which the Ontario government still held. Now, Allan concluded, even if the deposit were lost, "Burk's efforts will have been well worthwhile" (1942). Likewise, when CW. Jackson, McGill's executive assistant, reviewed the dossier, he gleefully concluded that "it would seem there will be a happy ending to what looked like a bad mess a couple of years ago" (1942). That ending included the DIA recouping its $3,500 deposit from the Ontario government, the renovation of numerous homes on the reserve, the construction of over two dozen new ones, the building of a dock and breakwater for the community, and years of solid employment for dozens of Anishinabeg. In summarizing the undertaking, a senior departmental official noted that, most importantly, it had made "this whole group ... wholly self-supporting" for the better part of one decade (Deputy Minister 1943).

By the late 1940s, Burk had been at his post for roughly one quarter century, and his efforts on behalf of the local Anishinabeg had created a number of benefits. Several bands were still filling pulpwood-cutting contracts with the region's major paper mills (they would do so into the early 1950s and beyond), and the Gull Bay First Nation was operating its own small sawmill, which produced lumber for the construction of new homes on its reserve. Tellingly, when a group of Natives in Burk's agency was seeking harvesting privileges in 1950 on a tract of licensed timberland adjacent to its reserve, D.M. MacKay, the DIA's director, reassured a concerned onlooker that "Mr Burk is most interested in their welfare, and will make most earnest representations ... to endeavour to secure an operation for them" (MacKay 1949). 19

Burk had even inspired some local Anishinabeg to make a go of it on their own in the forest industry, but their efforts attested as much to Burk's inspiration as they demonstrated the tenacity of the bureaucratic hurdles that continued to confront the DIA's field staff immediately after the Second World War. Raymond Hardy and Bernard Morriseau were members of the small Aboriginal community at the Sand Point Reserve, a tiny tract of land on the southeast shore of Lake Nipigon. Their plan envisioned employing a half-dozen of their neighbours on the reserve to cut its mature timber, saw the trees into lumber, and sell the wood to McDevitt, the DIA's veteran partner in such operations, who had agreed to purchase their output. Hardy and Morriseau invested $3,500 of their own money in the venture, and McDevitt also put up a small sum to help get their business going. In lobbying the DIA to support the undertaking, he reminded it that "these boys started a little enterprise of their own, without any assistance from the Indian Department, and the results they have attained is [sic] a credit not only to themselves but to all Indians in the District" (McDevitt 1947). After the department authorized the project, it quickly proved to be a roaring success, employing roughly 30 Natives and paying about $25,000 in total wages annually. When Hardy looked to augment the operation by taking advantage of the department's loan program to Aboriginal businesses, however, he ran into a roadblock. F. Matters, the regional supervisor of Indian agencies, explained that "we are bound by the Revolving Fund Regulations," which indicated that Hardy had asked for slightly too much money. Matters tried to soften the blow by offering platitudes - "I know the man [i.e., Hardy] and the efficient way in which he has been operating and will be glad to do anything possible to help him" (Matters 1950), but Burk tersely informed Matters a short while later that delivering this news to Hardy had left the latter "frightfully disappointed" (Burk 1950).20

When J.G. Burk retired from the DIA at the end of 1953, he knew full well what it felt like to be frightfully disappointed by the department for which he had worked for 30 years. Over this time, he had presented proposal after proposal to headquarters, practically all of which had taken dead aim at the goal of improving the lives of the Anishinabeg over whom he had jurisdiction by making them as self-sufficient as possible and providing them with the chance to fortify their dignity. Even though Burk's goals were largely congruent with those set by headquarters, the DIA always seemed to resist his ideas at best and oppose them outright at worst. What made his superiors' approach to his work particularly vexing was the demeaning and patronizing attitude that permeated their dealings with him. It betrayed their aversion to trusting their field agents, and their predilection for rubbing salt in the wound by conveying their dogmatic tight-fistedness in a condescending tone that implied that only officials in Ottawa knew how best to spend the DIA's precious financial resources. While historians have shown that the presence of a number of unscrupulous field agents made headquarters' circumspection towards them understandable in many instances, Burk's experience demonstrates that senior departmental officials displayed a systemic prejudice against even its most benevolent field officials. A few supplemental examples of Ottawa's expression of this institutional antipathy towards Burk illustrate just how steep his superiors in the DIA made his uphill climb. By late 1935, for example, he had already devoted more than a decade to improving the local Anishinabeg's standard of living and had initiated a number of projects to provide them with employment and Ottawa with lower relief costs. Nevertheless, when Burk submitted the paperwork that asked to spend a few thousand dollars - of a band's own money! - on several worthwhile projects, he met with a typically snide response. Headquarters derided his seemingly tidy application for a small sum to augment the Mclntyre Bay's nascent farming program because it allegedly presented the matter in such "a sorry whirl" that made it "next ... to impossible to understand just what you are undertaking in your Agency in the line of help to the Indians." A.F. MacKenzie, the DIA's secretary, offered to review Burk's request only if the latter resubmitted it "in a concise and intelligent way" (MacKenzie 1935c). Around the same time, Burk applied for the Long Lac First Nation to use $3,000 from its account to construct new homes and renovate existing ones, and to clear more farmland. While MacKenzie admitted that "no doubt more houses will be necessary for these Indians," he proceeded to deliver an insolent lecture to Burk on how best to build homes in northern Ontario's hinterland:
I have been thinking that an Indian requiring a house could get out the logs and erect the walls. It would then be necessary to supply him [only] with lumber for the floor, roof, windows and doors and a small amount of hardware. This would make a suitable house and be much cheaper than using lumber and I would ask you to consider this feature of lessening the expenditure for erection of houses. (MacKenzie 1 935a)
Likewise, Burk located a used washing machine in Port Arthur for $35 (it retailed for $700) that he intended to use to teach hygiene and sewing in the school at Mclntyre Bay, and argued that doing so would be "a good step towards improving the health conditions of the Indians" (Burk 1935f). However, T.R.L. Maclnnes, the DIA's acting secretary, replied that "to supply a washing machine in this case would, in all probability, lead to demands from [other] Indians asking to be supplied with machines. To do so would be altogether out of the question" (Maclnnes 1935). Not only did Ottawa meet Burk's subsequent similar requests with the same snarkiness, but if the DIA authorized him to spend any money the amounts were merely a fraction of those for which he had asked.21

Burk was forced to slog through a never-ending stream of such exchanges. His request in mid-1936 for $20 to cover the expenses that the chief of the Gull Bay First Nation incurred in travelling to and from the reserve was met with a string of insulting questions from Secretary MacKenzie. The latter asked, for example, if the trip had been "a necessity and any benefit to the Indians concerned" (MacKenzie 1936)? Burk responded by reminding MacKenzie that the distance between the reserve and Macdiarmid was 72 miles and listed all the helpful work the chief had performed for his community during his journey: "In conclusion," Burk explained, "I may say the Indians do not make a practice of coming in and charging trips to the Department, as same will not be authorized by this office, unless it is a case of very serious sickness. Under the circumstances I trust this account will be passed" (Burk 1936b). Even though it was, Ottawa had yet again reminded Burk of how little it regarded his judgement. He encountered this same attitude the next year when he sent headquarters the Gull Bay First Nation's resolution asking for building materials, for two wells to be dug because "the Agent and Police advise that the water is unfit to drink," for the hiring of a farming instructor, and for the purchase of two horses (Burk 1937a). Even though the band had the money available in its account and the DIA's local inspector of reserves had approved the expenditures, head office disparagingly rejected most of them. T.R.L. Maclnnes, the DIA's acting secretary, disputed the band's need for an agricultural consultant, for instance, because these Anishinabeg would "not be farming in the sense that they will be cultivating grains but rather gardening and growing potatoes and vegetables" (Maclnnes 1937; McGiIl 1937a). Although Burk eventually prevailed, the DIA again made him jump through another set of humiliating hoops.

Remarkably, on one occasion when headquarters dealt with Burk, it actually recognized its bias, but with little consequence. In the wake of Burk's outstandingly successful project at Mclntyre Bay, DJ. Allan, the DIA's superintendent of reserves and trusts, forwarded a thorough report on the subject to McGiIl, the DIA's director: "This memorandum is inspired by the realization that we are all of us possibly a little too prone to condemn the agent in the field," Allan unabashedly admitted, "and we should be sufficiently generous to pass on an encouraging word to the agent and in the case to the operator when we are convinced of a job well done." This epiphany, however, did not signal a fundamental change in the department's behaviour (see fig. 10) (Allan 1942). Burk would soldier on, propose a new idea, have it beaten down at headquarters, and regroup and try again.

Despite all his travails, Burk allowed his frustration to boil over only on rare occasions. On the eve of his retirement in the late summer of 1953, after having submitted the proper paperwork to purchase the materials the Gull Bay First Nation required to construct five new homes on its reserve prior to freeze-up, Burk was stupefied by his superiors' inability even to acknowledge his letter, let alone grant his request in a timely manner. As he despairingly confided to the DIA's director, "these petty annoyances and delays are continually occurring. I would certainly appreciate a greater degree of co-operation" (Burk 1953). 22 The lack of co-operation Burk received from headquarters was not solely due to bureaucratic intransigence. In many ways, his story highlights what happened when an Indian agent stepped outside his assigned role to promote economic development among First Nations people, in a time when such an approach was well outside the DIA's mandate. The years prior to the end of the Second World War were, after all, ones during which governments were not expected to foster economic development or become involved in entrepreneurial ventures. The officials who were so patronizing about Burk's initiatives were not simply pennypinching misanthropes; they were leery about using band or government money to fund business initiatives when this was not what governments were supposed to do, according to their frame of reference. Indeed, governments were not supposed to tend anyone's economic welfare, create jobs, or build houses for people. Although the DIA had been forced to assist Aboriginal peoples with "relief," its reluctance to do so was thus attributable to more than merely its miserly ways.

Nevertheless, even if a field agent successfully navigated the bureaucratic morass that was the DIA, there was little hope for co-operation from the province. For Aboriginal peoples who lived in a district such as Thunder Bay, in which the forest industry was the economic backbone, and who lacked a reserve that was large enough to sustain a modest annual harvest, at some point the Natives would need the provincial government's help to cut timber on Crown land. Unfortunately, provincial forest policy in Ontario was so contaminated by political considerations that there was little chance of Natives being given timber allocations. Father Alex Rolland, who administered the "Lake Nipigon Indian Missions" during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, was intimately acquainted with this dynamic: "It's for a small portion of small people and involves the highest policies and powers," he insightfully commented with regard to the frustration inherent in acquiring timber-cutting privileges in Ontario for the Anishinabeg with whom he dealt (Rolland 1952).

Burk's crusade on behalf of the Natives whom he served is extraordinary for many reasons, most importantly the perch from which he waged it. As one of the DIA's very own employees, he had every opportunity to tread the same path as his peers who abused their authority to reinforce their dominance over their clients, undermine Aboriginal peoples' independence, and personally profit in the process. Instead, Burk did the exact opposite. His career was free from any taint of the impropriety that marked even the work of those who acted "with good intentions" in their dealings with Natives (Chute and Knight 2006; Brownlie 2003, 29, 35). Moreover, he tirelessly used his position for a positive purpose, working with dogged determination to overcome every hurdle as he formulated creative new plans and re-tried old ones in the hope that these strategies would improve the lives of the local Anishinabeg. While some might argue that he made his job considerably easier by taking this approach, Burk's unique work environment dictated that this was not the case. Because he was one of the lowest-ranking employees within the juggernaut that was the DIA, its senior officials could, at their leisure, dismiss him if and when theft patience ran out. As Brownlie and Carter point out, such dissatisfaction from above was the sole reason for which an agent could be fired, and this dynamic compelled field officials to side with the DIA when the interests of the First Nations and government collided (Brownlie 2003, xvii, 33, 147; Carter 2006). Clearly, then, on the countless occasions when Burk fought his superiors on everything from defending the Natives' timber interests to spending funds without proper authorization, he was acting at his peril; the path of least resistance for him would have been to do nothing, notwithstanding the moral issues he would have had to confront had he done so. In addition, most of the exceptional individuals and groups who worked on the Natives' behalf and whose efforts have been chronicled by historians came from outside the DIA. This granted them impunity against retaliation by the government agency that was responsible for committing the injustices, and the freedom to walk away from their campaigns when it no longer suited them to fight (HaigBrown and Nock 2006). Burk enjoyed no such luxuries. He fought to help the Anishinabeg from within the very bureaucracy that was causing them so much misery, and his almost-daily encounters with them and their grave challenges left him no choice - at least in his mind - but to push on with his campaign.

Ultimately, Burk's story casts light on another layer of the DIA's complexity, specifically the existence within the bureaucracy of a benevolent Indian agent who could and did fight on behalf of his Aboriginal clients. Although the DIA's senior officials showed little interest in formulating economic development plans for the Natives during and immediately after the interwar years, Burk was committed to filling this void even though it was an enervating process fraught with difficulties (Brownlie 2003, 40-41, 105, 151-52). Furthermore, in many respects his pragmatic approach produced results. At the very least, he ensured that the Anishinabeg could often provide for their nutritional needs and regain at least some of their independence and self-respect. Furthermore, even though his strategy of creating independent Native enterprises fell short of the mark, involving the Anishinabeg in the district's forest economy allowed them to gain invaluable income and experience in all facets of this industry. Ultimately, Burk's tale demonstrates there was at least one "good" agent within the department, and begs the question of whether there were any more.


I am indebted to the surviving members of J.G. Burk's family who agreed to share their memories and photos with me; Susan Anderson was particularly helpful. The three anonymous reviewers and the editors at the JCS provided the most constructive, thoughtful and insightful feedback that I have ever received. I incorporated their invaluable suggestions and recommendations into the essay, and undoubtedly the result is a significantly improved piece. Tory Tronrud at the Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society provided his typically wonderful assistance, this time locating the final photograph that accompanies this article. I am also indebted to Léo Larivière in Laurentian University's Geography department for having generated the superb map that appears here. Finally, Dr. Robert Hall in Laurentian University's Music department agreed to proofread this article, and I am thankful for his help as well as his friendship.
  1. A few of the many examples can be found in Carter (1990), Kuhlberg (2003), Lytwyn (1992), Milloy (1999), and Telford (1996).
  2. One of the best known examples is Titley (1986).
  3. The more recent literature includes The Blackfoot Gallery Committee (2001), Brant (1995), and Jacobs (1992).
  4. On the rare occasions when historians have noted the good work of employees within the DIA, they have done so by portraying these officials as two-dimensional characters whose actions are mentioned merely in passing. For example, Chute (1998, 218-19), notes that Indian Agent William Nichols dug into his own pocket at Garden River in the early 1900s to fund Native logging enterprises and fought hard to keep Anishinabeg woodsmen employed for decent wages. Likewise, Carter mentions the efforts of a few field officials who defended the First Nations' interests (1990). A glaring exception is Smith (1995), who both highlights the work of and casts a generally positive light on an Indian agent.
  5. Brownlie (2003, 105-6), devotes a few lines to Burk's work, but describes it as an ephemeral effort that failed.
  6. I contacted (twice) all the First Nations mentioned in the essay, but none of their members was able to provide information pertaining to Burk's work.
  7. These subjects are addressed in Tobias (1983) and Brownlie (2003, xiv-xv, chap. 2).
  8. It also encompassed a few reserves within Treaty 9.
  9. Burk's fight on this front can be followed in several files, particularly Port Arthur Agency (1898-1962), Fort William Agency (1915-30), and Headquarters, Department of Indian Affairs (1924-51).
  10. Burk's approach was in stark contrast to agents who were complicit in wanton and unscrupulous timber harvesting on reserves, such as those described in Brownlie (2003, 68-72).
  11. Cox was arguably one of the most colourful and nefarious politicians and timber barons Ontario- and probably Canada - has ever seen. He was mayor of Port Arthur from 1934 to 1949, and member of provincial Parliament for Port Arthur from 1934 to 1943 and for Fort William from 1948 to 1951. For a generally positive perspective on his activities, see Rasporich (1991). A very different side of Cox is revealed in Kuhlberg (2003, 2004).
  12. Further details of the Anishinabeg's deplorable living conditions in the early 1930s can be found in correspondence from the HBC Post Manager at Allanwater (1934) and Burk (1935a, 1935b, 1935c).
  13. The flooding of this area and the subsequent compensation payment can be followed in Fort William Agency (1904-47).
  14. Brownlie (2003, 105-9) describes how, although some of the Aboriginals whom she studied were able to find their niche in local economies during the 1920s, the Depression spelled the end to their success, and the 07 May 2014 Page 13 of 19 ProQuest ensuing widespread unemployment left the DIA with few options in terms of helping them. The remarkable success of Burk's Mclntyre Bay project underscores the ability of agents to be positive forces in Natives' lives, even during the most desperate times.
  15. Burk's remarkable project was probably the inspiration to senior departmental officials who recommended in the late 1930s that the Natives become self-supporting by obtaining jobs in local primary industries. It is noteworthy that Burk's plans, unlike those of his superiors in Ottawa, entailed having the Anishinabeg engage in secondary and tertiary forest industries as well.
  16. These events can be followed in Port Arthur Agency correspondence (1933-36).
  17. The documents concerning these pulpwood efforts are found in Port Arthur Agency, Department of Indian Affairs (1931-37; 1937-41).
  18. Burk's quest to find a contractor can be tracked in the germane documents found in Fort William Agency (1936-38) and Port Arthur Agency (1935-39; 1939-52).
  19. Burk's accomplishments during this period can be gleaned from Port Arthur Agency (1939-52), Lakehead District (1939-57), Port Arthur Agency (1946-54; 1950-63).
  20. The story of the forest operation on the Sand Point Reserve can be followed in Port Arthur Agency (1946- 54).
  21. For example, see MacKenzie (1935b), Burk (1935d), and Parker (1935).
  22. The tone of the department's response can be gleaned from Jones (1953).


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