1552 Bard of the Shuswap

The Shuswap Country
by Erskine Burnett, edited by Jim Cooperman and with a foreword by Mark Forsythe

Salmon Arm: 55 Creative Group and Hucul Printing, 2022
$25.00  / 9780994990259

Reviewed by Sage Birchwater


The Shuswap Country is a history-buff’s delight waiting to pique your curiosity about life in the Shuswap during the 1930s and 1940s. The original scrapbook travelogue created by Scottish immigrant and Coldstream orchardist, Ebenezer Erskine “Scotty” Burnett, was inspired as he travelled about the Shuswap and Okanagan peddling his fruit out of the back of his truck.

About a year ago Jim Cooperman, author of Everything Shuswap, discovered a digital copy of Burnett’s work quite by accident, in the archival website ARCABC.CA, which came from the collections of the Enderby and District Museum and Archives.

“It was a remarkable find,” says Jim, who edited the text after contracting his neighbour to transcribe a photocopy of the original. He then selected the best photographs Burnett had taken and developed in his own darkroom, to accompany the narrative.

Map of Shuswap region by Erskine Burnett
Erskine Burnett, 1949. Photo courtesy of Gerry Parkinson and family

The result is an historical and geographic treasure, offering insight into the history, people, the way of life and the access routes around the Shuswap during that time.

Burnett was born in Scotland in 1878, the last son of a Scottish laird. He came to Canada as a young man in 1897 and headed for Alberta where he lived before moving to British Columbia where he homesteaded at Coldstream near Vernon in 1908. There he planted an orchard and market garden. In 1921 he married Alice Ruth Gurney, a farm worker who had ventured from Burnaby to take a job in the Okanagan. The couple raised their two children, Kenneth and Frances, at Coldstream.

Cooperman’s relentless sleuthing ferreted out personal details of Burnett’s life that weren’t widely known. He followed one lead to the next, searching archives, museums and newspaper records and then finally connected with Erskine’s grandson, who lives in Tsawwassen. From a column by Vancouver Province writer, Alf Cottrell, he learned how Burnett produced his travelogues by painstakingly typing the text using carbon copies, which he cut and pasted on the pages.

The Maypole dance at Sicamous, ca. 1940. Photo by Erskine Burnett courtesy of the Enderby and District Museum and Archives

Burnett made 80 copies of his labour-intensive albums around 1950, which he sold to friends and fruit customers. His dream of publishing it as a book was never realized, because publishers deemed it would be too expensive.

The book contains a dozen chapters outlining various excursions Burnett took along back roads into secret and difficult-to-access places from Kamloops to Revelstoke, and from Adams Lake to Aberdeen Lake and Cherryville. The highlight is the description of his pack-trip into the Monashee Mountains with famed local pioneer, Bill Fraser (Editor’s note: the front cover of Shuswap Country shows Bill Fraser’s lodge at Sugar Lake, which burned down in 1980 — Richard Mackie).

The topographical boundary between the Shuswap and Okanagan drainages is fuzzy for many people. For instance, the headwaters separating the watersheds between Vernon and Enderby, or between Vernon and Lumby is subtle and somewhat ambiguous. Yet, Burnett correctly identified Aberdeen Lake as the southernmost headwater of the Shuswap system with Jones Creek feeding Bessette Creek which enters the Shuswap River near Lumby. Then it continues on to Mabel Lake which outflows through Enderby to Mara Lake and Sicamous.

Packhorse trip to the Sugar Mountain fire lookout with Bill Fraser at left. Photo by Eskine Burnett, courtesy of the Enderby and District Museum and Archives

Burnett introduces the reader to little known places and interesting characters who lived in the region. One the delightful story is about an African American trapper by the name of Alick, who trapped with the Indigenous people around Sugar Lake. When asked by someone in Vernon who the first settler was at Sugar Lake, Mr Alick replied: “Well boys, I was the first white man to reach the lake.”

Jim Cooperman adds a disclaimer in the introduction, explaining that Burnett’s narrative provided little mention of Secwepemc communities. “There is no acknowledgement of the fact that the Shuswap country, like most of British Columbia, is unceded Indigenous land. Nor is there any mention of the injustices that Indigenous people faced then, including lack of full citizenship rights that forced attendance at residential schools, where many were mistreated and where thousands of unmarked graves across Canada were recently discovered.”

Charlie Chong of Grindrod. Photo by Eskine Burnett, courtesy of the Enderby and District Museum and Archives

Jim also says he edited out Burnett’s prejudiced views which were typical of that time. “As part of my editing I removed the racist comments aimed at Indigenous people and immigrants,” he writes in his introduction. “In addition I removed unneeded text, changed a few words and corrected some wording and grammar, and added comments in footnotes that provide the current spellings, correct dates or other relevant information.”

However Jim left in some out-of-date British words and phrases to preserve some mystery that readers can google if they choose. He figures local history buffs will be captivated by Burnett’s travelogue which they can use as a basis for more research.

“Others can use this book as a guidebook for exploring the region and for comparing the world of the 1940s with that of today.”

Log rolling by two. Mabel Lake. Photo by Eskine Burnett, courtesy of the Enderby and District Museum and Archives
Mark Forsythe wrote the foreword

Jim, who created the book as a volunteer, managed to raise the funds needed for the project from sponsors, including local businesses and governments. Most of the books have been given to local museums who receive the proceeds from sales.. The book, which includes an inspiring foreword by former CBC Almanac host Mark Forsythe, was published by the 55 Creative Group, a local magazine publisher.

The Shuswap Country can be purchased at Bookingham Palace and Hidden Gems bookstores in Salmon Arm, and at R.J. Haney Heritage Village and Museum. It is also available at museums in Enderby, Lumby, Sicamous, Cherryville, Chase, Falkland and Vernon. In September 2022 it will be available in the Kamloops Chapters bookstore. The book can also be ordered from Jim’s blog, shuswappassion.ca

Home on the Range. Sheepherders Tony Gibson and Jack Husted on the Shuswap Sheep Range below Queest Mountain, photo by Erskine Burnett, courtesy of the Enderby and District Museum and Archives
Jim Cooperman. Photo courtesy Salmon Arm Observer

A note on the editor of The Shuswap Country: Author of the local best seller, Everything Shuswap, Jim Cooperman moved to the Shuswap in 1969 as a war resister and a back-to-the-lander, after receiving his BA from the University of California at Berkeley. Over the succeeding years, Jim taught school, worked in construction and log building, operated a sawmill, and edited a provincial environmental journal, the BC Environmental Report. His local environmental work led to the protection of over 25,000 hectares of new parks in the Shuswap, which is documented in the book, Big Trees Saved, by Deanna Kawatski. He has researched and written about local history and helped initiate and edit the local history journal, Shuswap Chronicles I and II. In 1993, he wrote the Chapter on Canada in Clearcut – The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry. And in 1998, he wrote Keeping the Special in Special Management Zones, A Citizens’ Guide, published by BC Spaces for Nature. Jim lives with his wife, Kathleen, in a log home they built on 40 acres above Shuswap Lake, where they raised five children. His column, “Shuswap Passion,” appears every two weeks in either the Shuswap Market News or the Salmon Arm Observer. Additionally, his YouTube channel has over 100 videos, including many that showcase live music, skiing and Shuswap geography.


Sage Birchwater at the Belfry Theatre, Victoria. Photo by Caterina Geuer

A note on the reviewer: As a long-time resident of the Cariboo-Chilcotin, Sage Birchwater has written several books about the area including Chiwid (New Star, 1995). Born in Victoria in 1948, Birchwater was involved with Cool Aid in Victoria, travelled throughout North America, and worked as a trapper, photographer, environmental educator, and oral history researcher. Sage served as the Chilcotin rural correspondent for two local papers for 24 years while raising his family south of Tatla Lake. He has also lived in Tatlayoko, where he was a freelance writer and editor, and Williams Lake, where he was a staff writer for the Williams Lake Tribune until his retirement in 2009. His other books include Williams Lake: Gateway to the Cariboo Chilcotin (2004, with Stan Navratil); Gumption & Grit: Extraordinary Women of the Cariboo Chilcotin (2009); Double or Nothing: The Flying Fur Buyer of Anahim Lake (2010); The Legendary Betty Frank (2011); Flyover: British Columbia’s Cariboo Chilcotin Coast (2012, with Chris Harris); Corky Williams: Cowboy Poet of the Cariboo Chilcotin (2013); Chilcotin Chronicles (2017), reviewed here by Lorraine Weir; and Talking to the Story Keepers: Stories from the Chilcotin Plateau (Caitlin Press, 2022). Editor’s note: Sage Birchwater has also reviewed books by Paul McKendrickHiram Cody Tegart & Andrew Bruce Richards, Chris Czajkowski & Fred ReidMarianne Van Osch, and Jay Sherwood for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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5 comments on “1552 Bard of the Shuswap

  1. I live just off the banks of the Shuswap at Ashton Creek and I am very interested in the history of the area.

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