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The Fur Trade


The Fur Trade Era, which lasted approximately 250 years, can be divided into three periods: the French Era (c.1600 – 1760), the British Era (c.1760-1815), and the American Era (c.1816-1850).

Europeans were a small minority who had to adjust to the Native ways of conducting trade and war. Some anthropologists argue that this almost total reliance on Aboriginal groups for trade also resulted in a permeation of Aboriginal social arrangements and religion by the Europeans.

The Trade

Typical trading sceneThe practice of trade, which began as the simple exchange of shipboard trinkets for the fur robes from the Aboriginal people’s backs, soon turned into a formal meeting of the two groups for the sole purpose of exchanging goods. The meeting included the usual elements of Aboriginal treaty formation. This ritual, in its varying forms, was an essential element of the trade ceremony throughout fur trade territory and over the full span of the fur trade era. The repetition of this ritual at each meeting was a reminder that, however close the friendship between the two groups, they stemmed from different cultures. However, it also reinforced the solemn promises of peace and friendship, made before the Creator.

The ceremony was followed by an exchange of gifts between the leading men. This ceremony remained an element of the process although it varied a great deal over time. At its simplest, it was a gift of a container of berries in exchange for a knife. At its most complex, it included the late fur trade ritual of the choosing and dressing of the fur trade captains.

It was only after these rituals were performed that the trading began. In its usual form, it might have followed this order:

  • The Aboriginal peoples looked over the goods offered by the traders and made some selections
  • The traders looked over what the Aboriginal people had brought and assessed their value
  • Agreement was reached as to the value of the furs, etc. The traders took the furs
  • The Aboriginal people chose, and were given, those items which they desired
  • Trade closed with the giving of some small additional gifts to the least members of the Aboriginal group
Native Fur Traders

During the time of fur trade rivalry, the gifts at the beginning of trade were chosen by traders to encourage the specific groups of Aboriginal peoples to trade with them rather than their opposition. The gifts included alcohol, in greater or lesser amounts. When the opposition was particularly fierce, alcohol might also make up much of the European goods received in trade. Aboriginal peoples soon realized that the traders would go to extreme measures to prevent them visiting the opposition. They would give them alcohol to keep them drunk. They increased the evaluation of the furs to best that of the opposition. They gave more presents to all members of the band.

Origins and Identity

The term Métis refers to those people who were those born of a mixture of French or Scottish fur traders and Cree, Ojibwa, Saulteaux, or Assiniboine women. During the French Era (1600-1760), marriage between white traders and Aboriginal women was so common that it is estimated that 40 per cent of French-Canadians in Quebec today can claim to have at least one Aboriginal ancestor. The term Métis should only be applied to those whose sense of identity falls with others who share their mixed-blood culture and who do not identify with a particular side of their Aboriginal or European descent.

The origin of the Métis community is inextricably tied with that of the Fur Trade in Canada. The British entered the Fur Trade in 1670 with the establishment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The French had already been actively involved in trade. It was not until the late 18th century that British traders chose to pursue trade in the same way as the French, pushing inland, planting small posts, and sending employees out to find furs. Eventually traders began to intermarry with Aboriginal women. As a result, children born to Aboriginal mothers and Orcadian, Scottish, or English fathers became the newest additions to the Métis Nation.

Historic Communities

The Métis presence in Alberta can be traced through the histories of many communities across the Province. In many cases, European settlement due to the fur trade led to close contact with the Aboriginal people who lived in the area. Traders took Aboriginal women as wives, and their children were the forefathers and mothers of the Métis. In some cases, the children born of such Aboriginal and European unions did not identify themselves as culturally distinct from either the Aboriginal or the European communities. In other communities, however, the children saw themselves as neither European nor Aboriginal but as Métis, and to this day such communities bear the mark of Métis culture and tradition.


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