The fur trade, from the early 17th to the mid-19th centuries, was a crucial segment on the long history of Canada. It was a wide-ranging commercial enterprise, so unique in its nature, that it played a significant role in the birth of modern-day Canada. For more than two centuries, the fur trade gradually created complex structures that stimulated cultural, social, political, and economic change. This shift in landscape and the ensuing development—imperceptible to the historical agents involved (Aboriginals and Europeans)—became the forerunner in the formation of what is now Canada.
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The global industry of fur trade reached North America when French explorer Jacques Cartier traded with the First Nations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This preliminary trade was of great consequence on the early history of European-Aboriginal relations in North America. The subsequent French settlement in New France and the tremendous demand for beaver pelts in Europe ignited the thriving of the fur trade in Canada. From this point, the enterprise has gained ground and for the succeeding 250 years has managed to expand westward, opening the rest of Canada to European influences. As with any other ambitious endeavours, it was rife with conflicts and rivalries. During those times, the evolving structures created by the fur trade became the “scaffolding” of Canada.
Examining the history of the fur trade in the long term, two prominent features among its complex structures and networks were identified as the cornerstones to which the “scaffolding” of pre-confederate Canada relies on the intermingling of Aboriginal and European cultures and the finite nature of fur as a staple in a resource-based economy. Hence, this paper, surveying the Canadian fur trade from its beginning in the northeast, its penetration in the West and the plains of the North by the rivalry of two competing companies, and its reaching of west coast that marked the unification of east-west Canada, seeks to illustrate that these two hallmarks were the primary contributors that brought about the emergence of modern Canada.
To understand the unique role that the fur trade played in the history of Canada, it is suitable that it be viewed through the lens of longue durée. From the French word which means long duration, longue durée is a perspective on history that focuses on the long-term historical structures and the “imperceptibly slowly evolving relationship between people and the world which constitute the most fundamental aspects of social life.” It was an expression used by the Annales School of historical writing, famously by the French historian Fernand Braundel who wrote an article in 1958 entitled “Histoire et sciences sociales: La longue durée” in which he observed that social sciences was facing a crisis of dealing excessively on the short-term time scale or on the immediate causal factors. He also added that the temporalities of history must be considered in the context of the geographical constraints that humans have endured through time, highlighting the significance of the geography and demography in historical studies. Another important aspect of approaching history la longue durée is understanding the concept of structure. As used in the social sciences, structures are patterned social arrangements that exist on the society. José López and John Scott defined it as “patterns of causal interconnection and interdependence among agents and their actions, as well as the positions that they occupy.” In the context of longue durée, these structures are those that only time can slowly erode. They are evolving and flexible, navigating their way as time chases them. Braundel also wrote that certain structures persist over an infinity of generations, restricting history and controlling its flow. Adding that it can also simultaneously be a pillar and an obstacle.
Considering the extent of the fur trade that run through for 250 years and the convergence of two cultures in relatively new geography with the dynamic nature of fur as a commercial product, it was deemed fitting that the history of fur trade in Canada be assessed in this approach. This survey is an attempt to appraise the history of the fur trade through the lens of longue durée.
In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded Québec and established trading posts in Acadia and Tadoussac, marking the transition from seasonal coastal trade to permanent interior trade. It is to be noted that France did not intend to set up permanent settlement but only commercial outposts. The dominant economic policy of mercantilism during that time encouraged the generation of wealth by trade and export. The need for beaver pelts was extremely increased when the wide-brimmed felt hat became a trend later in the 16th century. With this outlook and the demand of beaver pelts in Europe, the French economic interests would shift and focus from fishing industry to expansion of fur trade in North America. To supercharge the economy, the French Crown granted a charter to a series of monopolies with the expectations that the subsequent economic development will encourage settlement for the sparsely populated New France. The force that the foundation of New France brought in Canada and the knowledge of the Aboriginals in conducting themselves to further their economic and geopolitical ambitions had spawned the growth and spread of fur trade in North America.
The fur trade was defined by the vital role of benevolent contact and interaction between Aboriginals and Europeans. Aboriginals were not merely thought of by the Europeans as accessories to the growth of the fur trade economy. They were the main suppliers in the fur trade and were considered business partners, equal to their European counterparts. The fur trade provided the Aboriginals with European goods, that were found useful for gift-giving ceremonies, improving their social status, and waging wars. Their political and economic objectives were, to some degrees, similar to that of the Europeans, that is to gain dominance and to further their economic standing. Alliances were formed between the Aboriginals and the Europeans, which were an important backbone in strengthening their trade partnerships. The French in the first half of 17th century forged alliances with the Algonquin, Innu, and most importantly the Huron-Wendat who played the role of middlemen between the French and the Aboriginals in pays d’en haut. They also battled against the Haudenosaunee in the attempt to dominate the Fur Trade, known as the Beaver Wars or the French and Iroquois Wars. These alliances grew beyond trading relationships and became a fertile ground of shared cultures both from the Aboriginals and Europeans. Their living, for better or for worse, were shaped by the fur as staple good and this interdependence based on a commodity, an important economic resource, has contributed to the progress of the fur trade. The voyageurs and the coureur de bois have also played a role in spreading cultures outside of New France. These sporadic transactions in the interior of the continent were the precursors on the spread of culture across North America.
Toward the end of French rule in New France in 1763, the fur trade had vastly dwindled as the key stable good that spurred much of New France’s economy for more than the last century. Partly because of the slimming beaver populations in eastern regions, traders were forced to go north and west to look for new sources of supply which were mostly funded by monopolies. According to the staple theory, the dependency of the Canadian heartland into search for and accumulation of staples to sustain the economy led to the exploitation of the hinterland. This holds true as the French moved westward and competition against the English precipitated. Since 1670, the English had been established at posts on the sub-Arctic coast of Hudson Bay giving them an edge. These rivalries between the English and the French marked the beginning of the westward expansion of the fur trade.
The westward expansion of the fur trade was prompted by two competing trading companies namely the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC). These two institutions established strings of forts that attracted the Aboriginals to serve as ‘homeguards’ by settling in or near the forts. In this way, permanent trading partnerships were established, and it permitted dependable access to labour, food, and security for the Europeans; and on the part of the Aboriginals, provided authority and control over traders. These precursory alliances and interdependence gave birth to communities in the North and the West that were aptly called fur trade societies.
Both the cultures of Aboriginals and Europeans can be accessed within reachable vicinity. The geographical factor contributed significantly to the adaptation of two divergent cultures to one another. The alliances that were formed here through marriage and kinship were necessary to attain one another’s economic and political motives. Yet, in the long term, this practice of intermarriage (country marriage or à la façon du pays) as defined by Canadian historian Sylvia Van Kirk became “the basis for a fur trade society.” Two historical actors, the aboriginal women and the Metis people, were instrumental in keeping the dynamism of a fur trade society. The Aboriginal women proved to be reliable partners in fur trade life as they possess skills that were essential in the trade and the know-how in the wilderness. They supplied the men with moccasins and other implements vital in living on harsh environments, preserved foods especially the pemmican and through time had their direct hands on the operation of the trade and transacted independently. The men also benefited from the intimacy and sexual relationship their Aboriginal wives provided. On the other hand, their progeny, specifically the Métis helped bridge cultural gaps, resulting in better trading relationships since they were raised to understand both cultures. Over time, the Métis became valuable assets of the two major fur trade companies. They, as skilled voyageurs, hunters, and interpreters, were crucial human resources and economic base in the fur trade. Soon, achieving a cultural critical mass, they emerged as a distinct group of people possessing their own unique language (Michif), style of dress, way of living, and social interests. They also managed to remould the pemmican industry, adding to their well-defined identity. The Aboriginal women in the fur trade were the bonds of two intermingling culture and the Métis were proof that a new identity is forming as a result of this intermingling. This is also evidence of the dynamism and continuity of the Aboriginals.
After conflicts between the NWC and HBC in 1821 had resulted in violence the NWC was forced to merge into the HBC. The newly merged company entered the coast trade with the intention of driving the Americans away. The expansion to the other side of the coast is also due to the dwindling source of fur in the Hudson’s Bay and Rupert’s land. This was done by following waterways toward the Pacific Ocean where staples are expected.
The maritime fur trade brought the Pacific Northwest coast into a global trade network. Economic superpowers were actively involved. Russians pioneered the trade in the Aleutian Islands to the southern coast of Alaska while English and Americans focused on what is now the coast of British Columbia. The fur trade in the west coast as with the east was a period of mutual benefit. However, the Aboriginal culture was not overwhelmed by rapid change but adapted to newcomers. The aboriginals managed and mediated the influence of Europeans in their culture but the increased in foreign merchandise resulted in an increased in warfare, potlatching, slaving, and annihilation of people due to widespread diseases. The autonomy observed with the interactions between Aboriginal and foreign traders on the west coast is mainly because of the absence of missionaries and imperial power until the 1840s.
Through the careful study of the history of the fur trade in Canada, two structures were pointed out to have endured the test of time and to have made an impact to launch changes instrumental to the development of Canada. First is the intermingling of cultures. Throughout the expansion of the fur trade, the convergence of both Aboriginal and European cultures stimulated the success of the enterprise. It became the common ground for perpetuating the economy. The benevolent Aboriginal-European relations, the role of Aboriginal women, and the contribution of Métis people were developed by such structure through centuries. Second is the finite nature of fur as a staple. The staple thesis of Harold Adams Innis describes the economic development of Canada as a lateral, east-west conception of trade. The search for and exploitation of fur led to the formation of institutions that defined the political culture of the nation and its regions. As the fur staples deplete in the northeast (heartland) Europeans were forced to expand across the continent and this was undertaken by following the beavers. As Innis noted, “In this movement, the waterways of the beaver areas were of primary importance and occupied a vital position in the economic development of northern North America”. This structure was key to the unification of east-west Canada.
These two structures were formed gradually through the implementation of strategies equally by the Aboriginals and Europeans. As these structures grew complex it became embedded in the society, influencing important social systems such as cultural, economic, and political systems (scaffolding) that still resonates in modern Canada. All of which taken in the context of understanding history in the long-term.
- Belshaw, John D. Canadian History: Pre-Confederation. Vancouver: BCcampus, 2015. http://opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/.
- Braudel, Fernand, and Immanuel Wallerstein. “History and the social sciences: the longue durée.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) (2009): 171-203.
- Foster, John E., and William John Eccles, “Fur Trade”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published July 23, 2013; last modified May 08, 2019. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fur-trade
- Gaudry, Adam, “Métis”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published January 07, 2009; last modified October 16, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/metis
- Innis, Harold Adams. The fur trade in Canada: An introduction to Canadian economic history. University of Toronto Press, 1999.
- Lopez, J. and J. Scott (2000), Social Structure, Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press. Mackie, Richard S. Trading Beyond the Mountains: the British fur trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843. University of British Columbia Press, 2011.
- Pannekoek, Frits. The fur trade and Western Canadian society, 1670-1870. The Canadian Historical Association, 1987.
- Van Kirk, Sylvia. “The role of native women in the fur trade society of western Canada, 1670-1830.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (1984): 9-13.
The fur trade is, for good reason, symbolic of the history of Canada since the 1600s. But that doesn’t mean it has been an unchanging, uniform commercial relationship. Looking at the long term (what French historians call the longue durée), examine the fur trade in the northeast, the North, the West, and on the West coast from ca. 1600 to ca. 1840. What were its defining features over more than two centuries?
 Frits Pannekoek, The fur trade and Western Canadian society, 1670-1870 (Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, 1987), 3.
 English Oxford Living Dictioaries, s.v. “longue durée,” accessed May 21, 2019, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/longue_duree.
 Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, “History and the social sciences: the longue durée.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) (2009): 171-203.
 Jose Lopez and John Scott, Social Structure (Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2000)
 Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein, “History and the social sciences,” 178.
 John D. Belshaw, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation (Vancouver: BCcampus, 7 March
2015), 4 http://opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/.
 John E. Foster and William John Eccles, “Fur Trade”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. (Historica Canada, 2013). https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fur-trade
 Harold Adams Innis, The fur trade in Canada: An introduction to Canadian economic history (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999).
 John D. Belshaw, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation (Vancouver: BCcampus, 7 March
2015), 8.8 http://opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/.
 Sylvia Van Kirk, “The role of native women in the fur trade society of western Canada, 1670-1830.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (1984): 9.
 Ibid, 10.
 Adam Gaundry, “Métis,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia. (Historica Canada, 2009).https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/metis
 Richard S. Mackie, Trading Beyond the Mountains: the British fur trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843. (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011).
 John D. Belshaw, Canadian History: Pre-Confederation (Vancouver: BCcampus, 7 March
2015), 13 http://opentextbc.ca/preconfederation/.
 Innis, The fur trade in Canada
 Ibid. 6
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