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Pat Burns

Writing the biography of Pat Burns may have been Grant MacEwan's most challenging project. Pat Burns was not a writer and left practically nothing in personal records. Nearly 40 years passed before MacEwan had gathered enough content to adequately cover the life of this industrious man.

A homesteader, freighter, dealer, trader, cattleman, meatpacker, businessman, and rancher, Pat Burns was a many-faceted individual. In Pat Burns: Cattle King, Grant MacEwan describes in detail Pat Burns's numerous ventures in the Canadian West. Burns was undoubtedly a man with remarkable foresight who employed his resourcefulness and practicality to attain success. Burns was one of Alberta's most respected figures, yet he never revealed the slightest hint of arrogance; instead, he maintained a close connection to the lower and middle class and was always willing to assist the needy.

From a young age, Pat Burns dreamed of riding horses and heading cattle on the grassy hills of Western Canada. At 22 in 1878, the man from Kirkfield, Ontario headed west. First homesteading in Manitoba, Burns slowly began buying cattle and selling meat. He moved to Calgary in 1890, where he established his first substantial slaughterhouse. He then turned to ranching and acquired large tracts of land. P. Burns and Company would become Western Canada's largest meatpacking company. Burns and three other entrepreneurs, A.E. Cross, A.J. McLean, and George Lane, started the Calgary Stampede in 1912, calling it "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth." They put together $100 000 worth of financing. Meanwhile, his ranching enterprise continued to prosper: he owned six ranches totalling 38 000 head of cattle.

MacEwan argues that Burns was a true pioneer in the cattle industry and owed much of his success to his creative production methods. Burns rethought the whole slaughterhouse industry and focused on the most efficient use of by-products. In doing so, he was able to expand the list of recoverable products including leather, fats for soap, bone meal, fertilizers, and an array of pharmaceuticals.

By the end of World War I, Burns had become one of Canada's most successful businessmen. He maintained a regional head office in Vancouver and thus increased his presence in the West, as well as owning over 100 retail meat shops across British Columbia and Alberta. For his accomplishments he was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 1931 by his good friend R.B. Bennett.

Burns's actions spoke louder than his words. A quiet and unassuming character, Burns cared deeply for his community. He was a generous philanthropist who staunchly supported many charities. According to MacEwan, what makes Burns such an impressive figure is not his accumulated wealth but rather what he did with it. Regardless of how much profit he generated, Burns continued to maintain close connections with the entire community. It is impossible to determine the full extent of Burns's gifts and charitable donations, but MacEwan's biography gives readers get a clear sense of his generosity through short stories demonstrating Burns's willingness to assist those in need. Burns was a successful entrepreneur and a successful businessman who held strong convictions about his community and, through his own success and willingness to share that success, has become a legend in the history of Western Canada.


MacEwan, Grant. Pat Burns: Cattle King. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1979.

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