Reminiscenses of Gerrie Burk
Connie Burk Sepulchre
Gerrie Burk was the Shuniah Okima, "silver chief' or 'money boss', in the Ojibwa-Chippewa language. It was he who, as government agent for the native Indians of Northern Ontario, distributed the annual treaty money to those who chose to continue to live on the reserves. From an early agreement with the federal authorities, each person would receive $10.00 a year, a sort of pension, probably something like $100. 00 or more today. This was very popular with the tribes, although it seems to us very little. However, on the reserves, it was possible to continue their traditional life style and make a few dollars on their own, hunting or trapping and eventually selling valuable firs. They could also make some money, and still do today, selling tax-free tobacco outside their territory. This distribution of money made the Okima a great favorite, although his numerous other duties were necessary as well. They involved the maintenance of order, the organisation of housing, schools, and dispensaries, the liaison with the Hudson's Bay Co., Ottawa and the mounted police. Uncle Gerrie has become almost a legend to you all, since you knew him at home as "Mr. Frog". He deserves to be remembered. He represents, with my father [Tom Howard Burk], all the bush lore and the beauty of the Canadian outdoors and good living.
We never knew how the nickname Smokey came to be. Of course, she didn't smoke, but no one ever called her Caroline, except maybe Uncle G. when he wanted to be diplomatic... or forgiven. She was very good-looking, tall and gracious, less subdued than my mother, who was very pretty but quieter. She was equally at home at a sophisticated social function, or in rough trousers in the bush. Always ready to pack for a picnic or a camping trip to follow Genie on his rounds in the remote Indian settlements in the north.
These "Bay" stores were the most important trading posts all across the hinterland from the days of the Voyageurs and the fur trade and the coureurs des bois. Later, their big department retail stores were in almost every major city across the continent. Now, they have disappeared, in favour of giant super stores like Wallmart, which is quite different, and has not the same quality selection. Gerrie was well-known everywhere in Northern Ontario, and always very welcome. He took us once to visit one of his haunts, an enormous lumber camp where, at that time, the business of felling trees, was very different from the atrocious, massive bulldozer massacres of entire forests today. It was still done largely by manpower, two men on a hand saw could do some good work in a day. Which required some serious "fuelling" too – the tressle tables of the camp refectory were a joy to behold, loaded with such a vast choice of real, energising food. We children were most enthusiastically encouraged to "do honour" to the cook's incredible skill and imagination. There were meatballs and steaks and meat pies and soups, great piles of pancakes in maple syrup, mountains of mashed potatoes, apple pies, blueberry pies galore, pumpkin pies with cream. Maybe not actually top dietetics, but lots of calorie and protein for sure. I remember that just looking at it almost killed the appetite. Not so for those tough lumberjacks after a long day's labour! When it was winter, and the outposts too remote to reach by the roads, there was the snowmobile, a smallish, propeller-driven craft on skis that could hold 5-6 people, and glided smoothly over the frozen lakes to almost anywhere. Once or twice, indelible memory! when the roads were impassable by car, Uncle let us ski-jhor (spelling uncertain), with ropes tied to the back of the car. Unforgettable, the snowy winter roads, the birches silvery along the sides, in the moon or bright starlight, sometimes a dramatic surprise of the aurora borealis, so shockingly colorful all across the northern sky. Trips around Lake Superior in milder weather in the long, birch bark freight canoes, re-living the lives of our noble Voyageurs, were so pleasant.
Uncle Gerrie was not handsome, but he had such a jolly face, little round spectacles and a short, brush moustache that matched so well his effervescent good nature. He was almost always laughing or joking – except when he was about to tell a "tall" story, then he became serious and it was well to be on your guard! Generally, when the telephone rang around supper time, and the salutation was "b"joo niche immacummagut?", the only thing you could do was first, to answer: "nishin, abbacheemagwetch" then sit down and resign yourself to listen, because it was most probably going to be one of the fabulous "shaggy dog" stories with no real ending. For at least five long minutes, you might hear the interminable adventures of good Chief Shortcake, who went off one day to set his traps in the forest, and after incredible mishaps – of which no detail was omitted – failed to return to the tepee. Whereupon, his squaw packed off on his tracks to find him. This chapter was also well supplied with misadventures and nasty surprises. When she found him, at long last, there was not much left of him after a presumable encounter with a wolf or a bear. Alas, it then behoved the poor widow to notify the authorities, because chiefs are often important civil servants, so she toted his noble remains to the Bay "post", and sent a short telegram to Ottawa with the few pennies she had. They allowed her only three words. "Now", asked uncle seriously, "what do you suppose were those words"? ++ for answer, see the end of the story.
If it was worth a lot of hard work to produce a good school report, the reward was exquisite. I would rush up the hill flourishing my results and wait for the magic words of praise: "Now, isn't that just the cat's whiskers!!" Nothing could be more eloquent or encouraging! When Tom Burk was quite small, he was very serious and shy, and only Uncle Genie could make him smile when he asked him – "Well Tom, has the chipmunk got your tongue?" On special occasions calling for a speech or a toast, we knew what he would say and we never tired of it, in the famous stammer that only gave it the right flavour: "Here's t-to the bride, h-health, happiness and ever-lasting sweet content, and m-may the chicken never hatch that w-will scratch on your grave!" And this, even in the most high-brow circles.
There was a remote family acquaintance from Montreal who had, at one time, a debt of gratitude to D. F. and who chose to remember this kindness when visiting the Lakehead by inviting us all to a gala dinner at the prestigious Prince Arthur Hotel. This was a rare treat for us children, knowing that we would be allowed to choose our own menu! Hardly really a choice, because we always chose meatloaf anyway, wherever we went. The setting at the hotel was sumptuous! Imagine, crystal wine glasses (but no one had wine because it was still prohibition, at that time) which would eventually be filled with water and ice chips!! Talk about chic! But the best was yet to come. We knew it would happen; while we all sat rigidly straight on the plush chairs, refraining heroically from gobbling, nerves straining and eyes almost popping everyone knew how Uncle G loved steak, but could never eat it in public because of his false teeth. But he had ordered it, so it was the hour for the great disappearing act. He would start telling one of the long impossible stories, playing with his knife and the steak all the while, then suddenly, gesticulating to illustrate his story, the meat would be gone! Only we younger folk knew where it was. In Smokey's handbag, to be cut up finely the next day for him at home.
Then there were these all too frequent "missions" up north, where excessive good planning might allow a person to hide a little something for the trip, to be subtilised at the last minute into one's attache case. So it was done, neatly – a very modest bottle of good brandy, that would be shared with the visiting minister on the rather dull train journey. Something to look forward to, spreading good cheer. When the time seemed ripe, after about the first hundred miles, Gerrie called the porter for two glasses and opened his case, beaming with satisfaction, one imagines. With a flourish, he poured a discreet dose for his companion, then for himself, and began his usual 'compliment': "here's to your health..." and paused. The minister had a funny grimace; then Uncle tried his own glass "I believe", said the other "that this is a foreign sort of brandy, the taste is very similar to — euh ¬actually, I think it is almost like tea"! Which, of course, it was.