Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Canadian Fur Trade

Montréal, Québec

4-7 August 2016

The first thing you notice about Montréal is the skyscraper buildings. We drove into the city but couldn’t fit into any of the underground carparks, so we had to go down to a carpark by the docks. The streets in the old part of the city are still cobblestone and very uneven, with some missing, so it’s very easy to trip.

Notre Dame Cathedral
The Organ Pipes
Spiral Stairs

Sir George-Etienne Cartier National Historic Site

George is responsible for uniting Canada on a federal level. He was a lawyer and then became a politician. After the Parc’s Canada guide gave us a private history lesson, we were able to walk through George’s house which has been restored and set up in the period of 1820. To begin with Canada was broken into upper and lower Canada – basically Ottawa and Québec. He convinced Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland to join Canada. British Columbia later joined when the east agreed to build a railway to connect them to the other side of the country.

The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site

Australia grew off the wool trade, for Canada it was the fur trade.

The depot next to the canal

The old stone depot that this museum was in was built in 1803 to house the fur destined for export. Eighty percent of the fur trade went through the island of Montréal. Lachine was the point where they had to change from their sailing ships to canoes to navigate the Sault-Saint-Louis rapids. Merchants had to wait up to four years to see any profits from their investments. We got our own private history explanation of how the Hudson River Company, sanctioned by the King was given a large area of Canada to trade. Another company, The North West Company was run by the Scottish. The only way back to England was down the St Lawrence River, so all trade had to go through Montréal, then Québec City. It was an easy route from England, through the St Lawrence river to the Hudson.

There was no point in paying the Amerindians currency for the furs, so they bartered - swapping goods for goods. For example a barrel of rum was worth three beaver pelts.

How the barter system worked

The Hudson River Company had the shortest most lucrative routes close to the Hudson Bay. The North West Company had longer routes that were further away from the Hudson, so their business cost a lot more to run. Through the smaller rivers were many rapids and the men used canoes to transport the pelts. A canoe could hold over 2000kg of pelts, plus the crew.

The Canoes they used

They employed men who were no taller than 1.7 mt tall, weighed less than 63kgs, had short legs and broad and strong shoulders. They had to have great mental and physical stamina, be able to tolerate mosquitoes, not get easily bored, and be cheerful and fond of a simple life. They had to paddle 40-60 strokes a minute for 16-18 hours a day. Be able to carry 2-3 40 kg packs, haul the canoes, repair the damaged canoes, get soaked in cold water, and sleep on the ground for only six hours a night. They were paid less than $100 a year, but were given pants, a shirt, leggings, handkerchief, blanket, pipe, tobacco, knife, plus two daily rations of salt pork, peas, corn or beans. An occasional glass of rum.

The companies traded pelts with the Amerindians for manufactured goods which made Amerindians lives easier but eventually undermined their traditional way of life. On the other hand the Europeans learned from the Amerindians how to live in this new land – snowshoes, toboggans, canoes and pemmican.

The companies had about fifty percent of the fur trade business each so they were satisfied and didn’t mind sharing the trade. This changed though when the demand for fur diminished, as fur hats were no longer in fashion. The companies started fighting and murdering each other. When the King of England found out, he told them they had to merge which stopped the fighting.

In 1821 canals were built to bypass the rapids. After 1821 only 5% of Canada’s fur exports went through Montréal. The fur trade was still not enough to keep the company going so they had to diversify into wood and wheat. Canada still exports beaver fur today.

Montréal now houses the majority of the fur manufacturers who produce 85% of Canada’s fur hats, coats and accessories.


Camp Andre in St Augustin De Desmaures

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