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Alberta's Irish Legends: Patrick Burns (O’Byrne) (1856-1937)

Updated: Oct 12, 2023



Patrick Burns (O’Byrne) (1856-1937)

b. Oshawa, Ont. d. Calgary

Entrepreneur, Rancher, Pioneer, Canadian Senator

A first-generation Canadian who reputedly never lost his Irish-Ontario accent, Patrick Burns was the fourth son of Michael and Bridget O’Byrne, Irish Catholic immigrants who left shortly after the Great Famine in search of a better life on a farm in Canada. Burns was raised and received a basic schooling in Ontario. His lack of inclination for studies or homesteading was more than compensated by a willingness to work hard and an ability to see business opportunities in the humblest of circumstances. He amassed a fortune that in today’s money would make him a billionaire, but he retained the down-to earth humility and generosity that was a main ingredient of his business success.


Burns had good luck in friendships, but also a skill in transforming even bad luck into opportunity. When Burns and his brother John took up a homestead in Manitoba, they supported themselves cutting wood, but their employer went bankrupt. In lieu of wages, he offered them a decrepit team of oxen, which the brothers butchered and sold, making a small profit.


Hearing that more and better land was available beyond the furthest western reach of the railroad, they walked more than 100 miles to obtain two quarter-sections near Minnedosa. Needing capital, Burns worked on the construction of the railway. As the CPR lines began to connect east and west, bringing out settlers and transporting produce and beef to eastern markets, Burns was quick to take advantage of its potential.


In 1887, his Ontario friend William McKenzie, a contractor for the CPR, engaged Burns to supply beef for the construction gangs. This was the first of many ventures, some using capital from McKenzie, that would eventually develop into P. Burns and Co., a food-services empire consisting of slaughterhouses, meatpacking facilities, ranching, livestock sales, dairy and produce companies. Ever open to new innovations, Burns and the CPR experimented with using refrigerated rail cars to ship fresh meat. He marketed brands that became household names in Western Canada, including Palm Dairies and—a nod to his origins—Shamrock Brand.


Burns’s unlikely journey from homesteader to business magnate was illustrated most dramatically by his mansion in Calgary—by the architect who designed the B.C. Legislature building—a Calgary landmark that was sadly demolished in 1956. However, the elegant house built on his Bow Valley ranch remains a fixture in Fish Creek Provincial Park.


While he entertained prime ministers and became a Canadian senator, Burns never abandoned the ethos of his Irish family and community. For example, early on in his trading career, he bought four cows on credit, but neither he nor the vender knew how to draw up a promissory note. The men sealed the deal with a handshake, a practice Burns was reputed to continue even when far greater sums were at stake. The advantages he had obtained by his early start in the industry drew murmurs of price fixing and monopolies (for which his company was exonerated). However, he retained the reputation for fair dealing throughout his life.

His philanthropy, made possible by his business success, also seemed to come from a genuine remembrance of what it was like to be poor and vulnerable. The most visible and lasting example of his civic engagement was his backing of the Calgary Stampede, which for over a century has celebrated ranching, pioneer, and Indigenous culture in Alberta. Founded by Burns and fellow-businessmen A.E. Cross, Archibald James McLean, and George Lane—the “Big Four”—the Stampede continues Burns’s example by drawing on volunteer and business engagement, supporting local economy and culture while drawing visitors from all over the world. Perhaps remembering the early support of backers such as McKenzie, Burns also extended loans and grants to small local businesses as well as artists. Avoiding sectarianism, he supported both Catholic and Protestant denominations (he once ensured that St. Patrick’s in Midnapore and its Anglican counterpart each got a fresh coat of paint). He provided emergency aid after the Frank slide and floods in B.C., and provided meals for the unemployed. He left the bulk of his estate to several charitable causes, including the Burns Memorial Fund, which provides educational and other aid to Alberta children to this day.


Further Reading

Breen, David H.. "Patrick Burns." The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article May 28, 2008.


Elofson, Warren, “Burns, Patrick,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 14, 2023.


Fortney, Valerie, “Patrick Burns, A Man of His Word,” Edmonton Journal, 27 August 2008.


MacEwan, Grant, “Trader Burns,” in A Century of Grant MacEwan: Selected Writings. Lee Shedden, ed. Victoria, B.C.: Brindle and Glass, 2011.


“Senator Patrick Burns (1856-1937)”, Alberta Champions 2023.

 

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