A Life's Story
November 03, 2018
'Caring and compassionate' physician served East Kildonan for 40 years
Morris Burke kept a well-thumbed copy of Shakespeare’s plays on his bedside table. His home, and his children’s homes, are filled with gilt-framed masters, all painted by Burke.
Beyond the close circle of friends and family, this much-loved and respected physician, artist, teacher and friend is likely best remembered for his empathy and kindness.
"He was such a talented person, but quiet," his widow, Eleanor Burke, said by phone this fall. "He never boasted and everybody loved him."
"I feel blessed to have had dad as my best friend, along with my mom, until he was 90," his daughter, Baillie Burke, said by email. She scanned a half-dozen of this paintings, vivid and nearly exact copies of Impressionist masters such as Paul Gauguin and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among others.
"The connection I had with him went beyond a father/daughter relationship," she said. "He and I deeply respected and thrived on our shared curiosity for life and learning and he passed on his dry humour... and gave us all the gift of finding humour in the ordinary."
Family can be counted on to express such sentiments but in this case, Morris Burke’s life was punctuated by acts of kindness which almost always involved extra hours of uncomplaining labour.
Burke was born Nov. 14, 1927, in Winnipeg, to parents to Max and Sarah Burke. He was valedictorian in his last year at St. John’s Technical High School and then was accepted at the University of Manitoba medical faculty, despite a strict quota at the time for Jewish students.
He married his childhood sweetheart, and they had four children just after he graduated from medicine. He was among the youngest interns in his graduating class.
Burke opened a practice in East Kildonan on Watt Street, where he worked for 40 years, retiring despite protests from his patients to stay on.
In retirement, the couple moved to Vancouver, where all their children settled.
Burke died Feb. 17. He was 90.
Morris and Eleanor had been married just over a year, when he accepted as a post in 1960 as a resident doctor in Norway House, the Cree community at the north of Lake Winnipeg. The couple didn’t speak a word of Cree, a distinct disadvantage.
Former Norway House Cree chief Ron Evans remembered the era: two residential schools, a day school and a double living standard with southern professionals such as medical staff, teachers and RCMP in housing that had electricity and plumbing, in homes situated on islands between the shorelines of the mainland, where local residents had their houses.
"From the time I can remember, there was no such thing as hydro. I can remember when they first started putting hydro poles into the ground," Evans recalled.
Life was tough.
"It was all cutting wood, chopping wood, and hauling water. There were absolutely no roads. Transportation was either by boat, by horse or by dog," Evans said.
Access to amenities aside, the big barrier was language. "Everyone spoke Cree. I know when I started off in school, I didn’t know a word of English," Evans recalled.
To get past the language barrier, Burke, who worked in the hospital, had to devise a way for patients to tell him their medical histories and how they were feeling. Working with locals, the young doctor handwrote his own dictionary and relied on it as much as his medical knowledge to treat patients.
Burke used the dictionary every day at work, and when the young doctor’s year-long posting ended, he left the dictionary for others to use. ("I don’t know if it still exists. He never brought it home," his widow said.)
While posted in Norway House, Morris was often away, flying in two-seaters to reach nursing stations across the north. The couple met and entertained Manitoba’s famous early bush pilot, Tom Lamb. They took a boat across choppy water to an RCMP party one evening, and lived through a fall freeze-up and a spring break-up.
An excellent target shooter, Burke ventured out with some Norway House Cree hunters, even though he hated the thought of killing anything. It was a success and the hunters gave the hide to the doctor. Locals turned it in into mukluks, belts and wallets that lasted for ages.
"It was an exciting place," Eleanor Burke recalled.
Back in Winnipeg, Burke set up his practice. Some of his patients stayed with him until he retired.
"He was amazing. He was my doctor for probably 48 years," Frances Honke said. "I’m 77 right now, and I probably knew him when I was 17 or 18 when he was practising on Watt Street.
"He was the type of doctor who would come to your house when your babies were sick: caring and compassionate."