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.

Aunt Smokey

Aunt Smokey was an important addition to the team – she provided the stability and management, whereas the men were all adventure and fun. The story was told how Uncle Genie met and courted Aunt Smokey– in spite of himself! He was afflicted with a serious speech defect and short breath from the gassing in the trenches of the war. So that when he met the very attractive Caroline Smallcombe, a school teacher, at a church "social", not finding conversation very easy, he decided to offer her a peppermint. But with the stutter and his confusion, he only got as far as holding out the package and saying "w-w-ould you..." When she exclaimed excitedly: "Oh, Mister Burk, this is so sudden, 1 really must talk to my parents!" And he found himself at the foot of the altar, with the peppermint still in his mouth. So he said.

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.

Trips to the bush

When we could go with them, it was thrilling. Sometimes it was in the summer, cruising around Lake Nipigon, north of Lake Superior, to the Indian villages or the Hudson's Bay posts on the little steamer "Keego" ("fish", in Ojibwa). It was fun to visit the schools and talk to the children and often distribute goodies. This was probably the first generation of "native" Canadians to get a proper basic school education. Interesting, too, to look into the "Bay" stores where there might be some furs exhibited, depending on the season, always a good supply of their excellent woolens, blankets or jackets or shirts – the latter in the familiar red or white and black check, much valued by the forest workers in the extreme cold weather. Her Uncle Ed gave Veronique a nice bright red Bay blanket for her wedding, that for him was the indispensable gift.

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.


But life had not always been a picnic for Uncle G.. In August 1914, as soon as war was declared, he and my father rushed off to enlist in the first Canadian regiment to go overseas, the Winnipeg Rifles. With a very short training period in England, they found themselves in Ypres (they pronounced it "wipers") in Belgium, in the trenches. They were made prisoners in 1915 and sent to the mines in Germany. This was grueling work, made more unbearable by hunger and cold. Genie was not a person to tolerate a situation like this for long. In one of the Red Cross parcels which, surprisingly, they received faithfully, he found a bottle of ENO's fruit salts. Normally used for indigestion, but if you were smart, there were other possibilities. The salts, when diluted in water, made wonderful foam. This gave him the idea to simulate a fit of epilepsy, foaming at the mouth crazily and throwing himself around on the ground. The only thing to do in that event, was to put him in the infirmary to recover, and here, of course, the vigilance was relaxed. With a fellow prisoner, also an "invalid" they got out easily, and crawled on their stomachs from bush to bush through mud and ditches, wading through dangerous marshes, mostly at night, all the way to Holland, without any real food for about ten days. In annex, you may find the report of this in detail in the copy of a newspaper article of 1915. My father was less daring and survived in the mines until the end of the war, with no visible damage to his health. Gerrie suffered all his life from the gassing in Flanders.

Life in Port Arthur

From the relatively moderate post in the Indian Affairs, Aunt Smokey managed to create a most elegant life style, without sacrificing the sincerity and simplicity of the family life. They seemed to receive quantities of ministers, mounted police officers, notables of all dimensions at regular intervals in the handsome dining room, but always with Aunt Smokey's home cooking; nowhere did I surprise a hired cook or maid. Their house was a perfect place for receptions, beautifully furnished with taste and discretion, situated on one of the best lots on the hilltop, overlooking the lake and the Sleeping Giant. Her dining room was all in handsome mahogany, with silver serving dishes and crystal glasses, all very awe-inspiring, for me at least. Sunday fireside suppers, too, with toasted sandwiches and tea, were so pleasant. She had the secret of good living, basically very simple. It never occurred to me to be jealous of my cousins, even though they were invited to the best birthday parties and I was not. Nor did it seem to bother them that I was a combination of the worst possible social evils, Catholic and of "foreign" – French-Canadian and Irish blood. Certainly, half of my young years were spent in their house. Both girls were more or less my age. Meals were always served in the dining room in correct style – that is, one was expected to be decently dressed and clean and remembering one's good manners. Nonetheless, it was relaxed, with always the possibility of a bit of fun. While Uncle would never forget to heap a generous portion of meatloaf or a special sausage on our plates, at times, there would be a diversion, when he would distract your attention in order to steal a choice morsel of something special from one of the plates beside him. One was never prepared for this, I don't know why. Then, very solemnly, when one protested and demanded restitution, he would pontificate: "Ah now, we must remember that it is written in the Good Book, Exodus II, vs 1-10, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's sausage"

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.


On one of the auspicious royal visits to the countries of the Commonwealth, Canada was naturally not overlooked. The itinerary was planned to stop in most of the major cities along the trans-Canada railway. Port Arthur would have been a "major" because of the Indian heritage interest. The Ojibwa were very careful to preserve their traditional feasts. The Chippewa, who used to be concentrated more on the Fort William side, had always kept a permanent village on exhibition. It was said to be fascinating and is probably still there. Uncle Gerrie had a big job on this most glamorous occasion. The royal couple were scheduled to visit what was announced as an "authentic Ojibwa village" on the outskirts of town in an open field... The "authentic" village had been put together just a few days before. There were magnificent wigwams and fires and peace-pipes and pow-wows; the chief was wondrously accoutered in his very best ceremonial regalia with a remarkable head dress of hundreds of feathers of all sorts. Aunt Smokey also had a new hat, almost as remarkable. The Queen was greatly impressed by all this colorful pageantry, watching all the dances with interest and asking many questions. One thing in particular seemed to attract her attention. She approached the chief with her most gracious manner and inquired what his magnificent costume was made of. There was a long silence. Uncle Gerrie's smile froze on his face. It became clear immediately that the chief did not know! Before he had a chance to answer in perfectly good English, Aunt Smokey, with her incredible sense of aplomb, stepped forward quickly, radiating charm, to explain: "The chief does not understand English very well, your Majesty. His costume is made of buckskin".


My story must end here, symbolically, as did the carefree years of my childhood, in this splash of colour so typical of our "First Nations". The only message I wish to leave with you has certainly made itself evident in all these pages. I have no fear for any of you, if you keep the faith 'of your fathers', never straying too far from the sources of strength and healing in the forests and the shining waters that are so great a part of your heritage.
++ Key to the enigmasquaw bury SHORTCAKE.