Burns Memorial Fund is the legacy of Senator Patrick Burns – one of Calgary’s most successful businessmen. Known by most Calgarians simply as Pat Burns, the Senator was a true pioneer. He was born in Oshawa, Ontario but spent most of his early years in Kirkfield, Ontario. The fourth of 11 children in an Irish Catholic family, Pat had very little formal schooling but learned a great deal about hard work and thriftiness from his parents, Michael and Bridget. Pat Burns headed out west with his brother John in 1878, at the age of 22.
He homesteaded in Manitoba for a while but gradually became involved in buying cattle and selling meat. Eventually, he ended up in Calgary where he set up a small slaughterhouse.The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway proved a boom to him, as he obtained the contract to supply meat to feed the workers. His business grew rapidly to include meat packing, the retail meat trade, wholesale fruits and provisions, creameries, cheese factories, dairy farms, ranches, mining and oil. In 1928, he sold the meat packing and related businesses for $15 million and focused his attention on his true love – ranching.
Senator Pat was known as a man of few words but great generosity. There are many stories of his readiness to help those in need. When a huge rock slide devastated the community of Frank, Alberta in 1903, Pat Burns was among the first to send aid. Five years later, when fire swept through Fernie, British Columbia, leaving 6,000 people homeless, he sent carloads of food. He was a staunch supporter of many children’s charities, making sure that the local orphanage was always well-stocked with free high-quality meat. He was an active Catholic and was named Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by the Pope in 1914, but also supported other religious groups. When he was called upon to pay for the painting of a small Catholic church near Calgary, he requested that the Anglican church next door also be painted, at his expense, so that it didn’t look shabby by comparison.
Senator Pat is perhaps best remembered as one of the Big Four ranchers who helped to start the Calgary Stampede. In honour of his 75th birthday, a huge cake (said at the time to be the world’s largest birthday cake) led the Stampede parade and was cut and distributed at the Grandstand that evening. Although he received many gifts and accolades that day, Pat Burns was always more comfortable giving than receiving. He celebrated his birthday by being true to his principles; he gave a five-pound roast to every family in which the head of the house was unemployed and a ticket for a meal at any restaurant in the city to the unmarried unemployed. Those were Depression days and the gifts were much needed. Two thousand Calgary families received the roasts and 4,000 single unemployed dined out on Pat Burns.
On the occasion of his 75th birthday, Pat Burns was made a Senator of Canada. In making the announcement, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett had this to say about him: “Holding your wealth as a trust, you have given generously to every good cause and your life has been an inspiration to the younger generation.” He was the first Liberal to be offered a seat in the Senate by a Conservative government.
Sadly, Pat Burns was predeceased by both his wife Eileen and his only child, Patrick Michael. Upon his death in 1937, he left his estate to his nieces and nephews and many charities, including the three that make up Burns Memorial Fund.
Sources used for this biography include Pat Burns: Cattle King by Grant MacEwan and the Archives of the Glenbow Museum.