Manitoba History: James McGlashen Cumines: Brochet’s Pioneering Game Warden
by Leslie M. Oystryk
In 1936, Jim Cumines was one of the first game wardens to be hired in the far reaches of northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan. This was just six years after Natural Resources Transfer Agreements from the federal government gave both provinces the jurisdiction and responsibility for their natural resources. Being a firstgeneration game warden in a remote wilderness setting was not an easy assignment, but it was a perfect fit for Cumines as he was a true northerner. He loved the north, was at home with all northern people, and had a deep appreciation for the fish and wildlife resources that he was hired to protect and manage. Very much the “strong and silent type,” Cumines patrolled his vast territory by canoe and dog sled, doing his job so well that, by January 1949, he received a Conservation Officer Award—a silver tray—from the Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources, the first ever to be awarded in Manitoba.
Cumines was born on 28 January 1879 at Welland, Ontario, to Thomas Cumines and Marion McGlashen Cumines. After graduating from high school in 1899, his first job was as a clerk in a local bank at a salary of $15 per month. In April 1900, at the urging of a close family friend, he applied to and was accepted into the North West Mounted Police. After training at the Depot in Regina, he had a short stint as a constable in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan before leaving the force in 1901. His reason for leaving the police force is unknown, as is his reason for heading north. Some evidence suggests he became a fur trader for Revillon Freres and he may have also traded on his own behalf. On 2 December 1906, he married Adelaide Roy at Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan and whisked her from the church with his dog team and toboggan. By 1908 he was working for the Hudson’s Bay Company and his HBC record shows that, in 1917, he was employed at Île-à-la-Crosse and for a time he was in charge of the Clear Lake outpost before being appointed manager of the Buffalo River post in 1920.
During his time at Île-à-la-Crosse, Cumines came to know a young member of the Saskatchewan Provincial Police Force (eventually absorbed into the RCMP), Lance Corporal Marcel “Chappy” Chappuis. In the 1930s and 1940s, the two would patrol together as law enforcement officers in the Reindeer Lake and Wollaston Lake areas. Chappy would later reminisce that he learned a great deal about survival in the bush and dog handling from Cumines. The two men patrolled many of the same wilderness areas by dog team and dealt with many of the same trappers, traders, and fishermen. They often found themselves sitting around the same remote fur outposts late into the evenings, discussing topics of mutual interest, including what American school teacher and author Prentice Downes, who visited the area in 1937, described in his journal as the “four Fs of the North: Fur, Fish, Freighting, and F***ing.”
In June 1923, Cumines was transferred to Lac du Brochet (Brochet), Manitoba to take over as manager of the HBC post there at a salary of $1,500 per year. In June 1924, he took the newly commissioned HBC vessel, the Lac Du Brochet, for its maiden voyage on Reindeer Lake from the south end of the lake to Brochet. A 45-foot motor schooner, it had been built in Edmonton, then taken by railcar to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, from which it was freighted up to Reindeer Lake with twelve teams of horses during the winter of 1923-1924. This vessel served the HBC for many years freighting trade goods, furs, and people. Cumines left the service of the HBC in July 1928 but he stayed on at Brochet as a free trader as well as a camp trader for Del Simons in the Nueltin Lake area north of Brochet. He was also a Manitoba Police Magistrate from 1933 to 1935.
In the fall of 1935, Saskatchewan’s Game Commissioner J. R. Hill and Manitoba’s Director of Game and Fisheries, Alexander G. Cunningham, received RCMP reports describing problems in the Brochet area, and proposing Cumines as a suitable candidate for a game warden to enforce game laws on behalf of both provinces. The exact content of these reports is unknown but we get a general sense of things from another RCMP report early the next year. It noted that, in December 1933, Charles “Eskimo Charlie” Planinshek was convicted by Police Magistrate Cumines for using poisonous baits in the vicinity of Fort Hall Lake, 130 miles north of Lac du Brochet, in contravention of the Game and Fisheries Act. Planinshek was fined $204.50, over $2,500 in today’s currency. Game Commissioner Hill commented that because of ongoing game infractions in the Lac du Brochet area, he felt there should be a permanent warden stationed there. However, a very limited budget allowed him only to send a man into the area by plane a couple times a year. He also noted that, while Cumines had rendered a great deal of assistance, he could not be expected to enforce game laws and adjudicate them at the same time. Cumines had a choice to make, and he duly resigned as Police Magistrate.
On 2 January 1936, Cumines was appointed by the Manitoba Department of Mines and Natural Resources as a Game Guardian II at a salary of $50 per month. This was followed by an equivalent appointment by the Saskatchewan Department of Natural Resources, also paying $50 per month. He would also receive travelling expenses of $2 per day for his dogs and $1.50 per day for meals while he was on the road. Each province provided him with a list of duties to deal with illegal activities on each side of the provincial boundary as well as crossborder problems such as bootlegging (laundering) of furs between Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and the North West Territories. Regulations and seasons varied among the three jurisdictions. The fur traders knew this and some unscrupulous free traders encouraged trappers to break the law. Violations included killing beaver out of season when they were fully protected, penning of fox, illegal snaring, using poisonous bait, and not paying royalties on furs taken. Cumines also worked to get hunters to stop killing caribou indiscriminately and to not feed caribou to their dogs.
Staying a step ahead of unscrupulous traders required ingenuity. In March 1936, Cumines devised a secret code that the Saskatchewan Game Commissioner could use to relay messages to him about the opening or closing of specific seasons for fur bearers via CKY radio broadcasts from Winnipeg. The Manitoba Director relayed a similar message via the HBC store radio system VY2F. This was done to keep certain information confidential so fur traders did not find out ahead of time. If they knew when seasons would change, they could change their “game.”
In early 1936, Cumines made the first of many wildlife patrols in the Reindeer and Wollaston lakes areas, a 20-day patrol covering 452 miles by dog team. Over the next five years, he would make 14 patrols by dog team or canoe on the Saskatchewan side of the border, covering the entire Reindeer, Wollaston, Hatchet and Black lakes areas. Copies of his Manitoba patrol reports do not survive but it is known that he patrolled all of the Reindeer Lake, Cochrane River, Whiskey Jack Lake, Thlewiaza River, Nueltin Lake, Churchill River and South Indian Lake areas. And patrols to monitor trapping were not his only responsibility. Commercial fishing on Reindeer Lake began in 1937 with 12 fishermen, and Cumines was expected to license, inspect and monitor the fishery on this entire lake by himself. His patrols ranged from a short 110 miles to the Swan River area to much longer 330- or 450-mile trips. Some of these trips took as long as 40 days to complete.
In April 1936, he submitted a report on the illegal activity of John Ivanchuk, a known “infraction man” and trapping partner of Charles Planinshek, who had been trapping in the area north of Brochet. Cumines suspected that Ivanchuk was using poison baits, was trapping without a licence in the North West Territories, and was not paying royalties on furs he had shipped to Montreal via Flin Flon. Cumines’ investigation led to the involvement of his supervisor, the Supervisor of Fish and Game at Prince Albert, as well as RCMP constables at Cumberland House, Prince Albert, and Eskimo Point, and an RCMP Inspector with the Criminal Investigation Branch at Ottawa. Although Ivanchuk was never formally charged with any of the suspected infractions, in 1939 he was barred from holding a licence to hunt or trap in the North West Territories.
In 1937, Archie Hunter, the new HBC manager at Brochet decided to re-launch the Lac du Brochet, which had been beached for a number of years. He felt the sails were not efficient and had the masts removed. Cumines was horrified when he heard what Hunter had done. This was not to be the only interaction between the two men. It seems that Jim and Adelaide Cumines were unable to have a family; so, following a long-standing and widely endorsed Indigenous custom, Adelaide sought to adopt or buy one of Hunter’s children for $600. Nevertheless, the proposal sorely embarrassed Jim and the transaction never went ahead. Adelaide Cumines, who was affectionately known as “the Big Lady,” was widely known and respected for the fine beaded moccasins and caribou jackets that she made. Many examples of her work were worn and valued by HBC men and their families, DNR staff in Winnipeg and Regina, and pilots from The Pas and Flin Flon.
It was also during the summer of 1937 that Prentice Downes paddled the waters of Reindeer Lake to Brochet with “Chappy” Chappuis. Downes would later write of five “legendary” white men he had encountered in that country: Oblate priest Father Joseph Egenolf, policeman Chappuis, fur trader Del Simons, trapper Ragnar Jonsson, and game warden Jim Cumines. Eight years later, when J. A. Rodgers of the HBC identified four notable men for an article about Brochet in the company magazine The Beaver, there was some overlap with Downes’ list: Father Egenolf, Egenolf’s assistant Brother Drouin, one-legged HBC trader Frank Henderson, and Jim Cumines. Rodgers described Cumines as an “erstwhile trader, now field officer—a man who knows his way in and out of the countless island channels on Reindeer Lake as well as you and I know our back yards.” Downes’ description of his visit with Cumines at Brochet on 9 July 1937 included Cumines’ views on trappers, traders and the problems of conservation law enforcement in that region:
In 1939, beaver populations in both provinces were so low that they received full protection by a closed season. This did not deter some unscrupulous traders from encouraging trappers to kill any beaver they could find, as the value for them had now increased. That summer, Cumines began an investigation into the illegal killing of beaver and the bootlegging of furs by two free traders on Reindeer Lake. The accused and witnesses were flown to South Deer (Southend) to appear before a Police Magistrate from Prince Albert. Seven Indigenous trappers were convicted of illegally killing beaver and two free traders were convicted of buying 84 pelts.
By 1943, Cumines’ salary had increased to $55 per month from both Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A year later, each province gave him an $8 per month cost-of-living bonus for living at Brochet, perhaps in hopes that it would benefit his general health. In March 1944, the 65-year-old Cumines had to be hospitalized at The Pas after completing a 40-day dog sled patrol of the commercial fishery on the Saskatchewan side of Reindeer Lake, during which he had lost 40 pounds. After two months of sick leave, he returned to Brochet. By August of that year, however, it was clear that Cumines’ health was still an issue. Manitoba Minister of Mines and Natural Resources J. S. McDiarmid dispatched a plane from The Pas to pick up Cumines, who was said to be suffering from a “heart illness.” Word of his condition had reached the government by way of the HBC’s private radio station VY2F at Brochet. Once again, Cumines came through but, as of 1 January 1945, he was placed on “light duty” at a reduced salary of $40 per month from each province.
Light duty indeed! During the early 1940s, the commercial fishery on Reindeer Lake was booming, primarily due to the demand for fish during the war years, and Cumines had to oversee it all, by himself. In 1941, there were 23 licensed fishermen who produced a total of 179,372 pounds of fish. A year later, there were 120 licensed fishermen and they delivered 1,446,191 pounds, an eight-fold increase over the previous year. By 1943, 228 fishermen delivered 2,663,034 pounds, almost double the amount from the preceding year. During the winter of 1943-1944, there are accounts of upwards of 500 actual fishermen working the fish nets on Reindeer Lake. During these years, Cumines was the only Conservation Officer or Natural Resource Officer for hundreds of miles in any direction. He suggested several times to the Saskatchewan Game Commissioner, always in vain, that consideration be given to establishing officers at Stony Rapids (to deal with illegally taken Wollaston furs being bootlegged in the North West Territories) and Island Falls (to deal with illegally taken furs from Stanley Mission and Pelican Narrows).
By the 1940s, conditions for trapping in Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan were changing. Populations of fur-bearing species were dwindling under the increased pressure from white trappers who had moved northward due to the depression and drought in the south. Beaver, a symbol of the strength of the fur trade, were so scarce that they were put under full protection of law. The Hudson’s Bay Company was under pressure to maintain their dominance of the fur trade against an ever-increasing number of independent free traders. Also changing were the methods being used to transport trade goods into the north and bring furs southward. York boats and canoe brigades were the norm into the 1920s, along with dog teams in the winter. Winter freighting to Reindeer Lake with teams of horses began in the late 1920s. The first mechanized cat swing to arrive at Brochet was in 1941. It made the 430-mile return journey from Flon Flon in 16 days. Winter freighting began in earnest.
Aircraft played an increasing role in trade and transportation. The first aircraft to be seen in the Reindeer Lake area was a Vickers Vidette which landed at Brochet in 1924. Seven years later, free trader Del Simons hired a Buhl aircraft from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan for a 1,500- mile experimental fur-buying trip. Simons and the pilot left Prince Albert on 23 December 1931. They flew to La Ronge and then to Rabbit River on Reindeer Lake, Brochet and then Windy Lake near the NWT border. They landed in Winnipeg on 2 January 1932 with a load of furs that Simons immediately took to the Winnipeg Fur Market. The flight made front page news across North America.
Meanwhile, Cumines had to deal with numerous reports of free traders who were caching illegal furs on islands in Reindeer Lake. They were later smuggled by canoe to Brochet, then down the river systems to Flin Flon, or they were flown out on aircraft along with fish shipments. Despite the overwhelming odds, Cumines single-handedly caught many of these “infraction men” at their own game. In September 1950, his monthly salary from Saskatchewan was increased to $107.50 with $15 northern allowance while his Manitoba salary was $97.50 but no northern allowance. Cumines received numerous encouraging and complimentary comments from his supervisors on both sides of the border. On 29 August 1952, on the verge of his semi-retirement (and reduction to $50 monthly salary from each province), Manitoba’s Deputy Minister of Mines and Natural Resources would write that:
Cumines was not inclined to “toot his own horn” but the stories told by others of his accomplishments grew as he enjoyed semi-retirement. They told how he single-handedly arrested three troublesome characters, how he defiantly confronted renowned Dene Chief Casimir over rights of trespass, how he rescued a travelling companion from drowning at the risk of his own life, and how he was run over while driving a team of dogs through a stampeding herd of caribou.
Adelaide Cumines died at the Winnipeg General Hospital following a period of illness and a battle with cancer, on 1 June 1955, aged 62. Jim passed away quietly at his home in Brochet on 28 March 1961 while still employed part-time by both provinces. He was 82 years old. Both of them are buried in the Brochet cemetery. In 1974, a memorial stone was erected near Cumines’ grave. Affixed to it was the silver tray presented to him in 1949 by his fellow officers, “for meritorious service in the cause of conservation,” and which he had cherished until death. Though Jim Cumines might not have said it quite this way, he had lived up to the game warden’s motto:
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 15 September 2020