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Fur Trade


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Until the mid 19th century French was the language of the fur trade, and the French-speaking fur trade voyageurs were the industry's first recruits in the West. Adventurous and adaptable, they were thought to possess a natural affinity for the harsh conditions of life on the frontier. They quickly learned the languages of the Aboriginal People, which was facilitated by their intermarriage with Aboriginal women, which facilitated close trading partnerships.

Hudson\'s Bay Company

In the early 18th century, French-Canadian explorer Sieur de la Vérendrye established the first chain of trading posts in the West. Historian George Stanley calls de la Vérendrye the "Father of the Canadian West," and although there are questions as to whether he entered the present territory of Alberta, he certainly opened the unexploited territory to the trappers and explorers who would follow in his footsteps.

Skilled French traders, working with merchants from Montréal, were quick to establish extensive trade networks. The European goods they brought to trade were superior to those supplied by the English, and the bulk of the Canadian fur trade was under their control. However the French government sustained the fur trade in Canada at a high economic and political cost. France would eventually witness the disintegration of her hold on her Canadian territories and the conquest of the nation by the British.

The Treaty of Paris and the end of the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War) in 1763 saw France cede Canada to England, and prompted the closure of French trading posts. The West was re-opened in 1783 by peace treaties between France and England. The English could not afford to lose the expertise of the veteran French voyageurs, and despite France's loss of her Canadian territories, the voyageurs remained at the heart of the fur trade. When Fort Edmonton was erected by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) in 1795, it was no surprise that French was still the language of business.

Old Hudson\'s Bay Company

Forged by a group of independent traders, the North West Company (NWC) emerged in 1783 to rival the powerful Hudson's Bay Company. Unlike the HBC, who initially sought rugged Orkney men from England, the NWC, a trading company based in Montréal, preferred French-Canadians. The NWC even encouraged its French-Canadian employees to marry indigenous women, recognizing the important role the Métis population had come to play in the industry as trappers, guides and interpreters. Most Métis devoted their lives to the buffalo hunt, trading in furs and generating the immense pemmican supply that would sustain the fur trade.

Beaver Hats

When the Hudson's Bay Company absorbed the North West Company in 1821, many Métis and French-Canadians were displaced. Many migrated to Manitoba's Red River region, others decided to stay and settle in the little colonies such asLac-la-Biche, or obtained work with the HBC throughout the area. The fur trade was a time ofeconomic exploitation, and French culture would remain the dominant influence in the area for nearly a century. However, the flood of English and European immigrants during the 1890s would eventually engulf the Francophone populations, changing the character of the region from French to English. Likewise, changes in European fashion and the decimation of many animal populations by over-hunting meant the glory days of the fur trade were coming to an end. Instead, new immigrants to the province came to develop the province's other natural resources, such as land and timber.

Sources:
  • Hart, Edward John. Ambition and Reality: The French-Speaking Community of Edmonton 1795-1935. Edmonton: Salon d'Histoire de la Francophonie Albertaine, 1980.
  • Smith, Donald B. "A History of French-speaking Albertans." In Peoples of Alberta, Portraits of Cultural Diversity, eds. Howard and Tamara Palmer, 83-108. Saskatoon: Saskatchewan.
  • Stocco, Denise. French Canadian Colonization in Alberta. Edmonton: Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta, 1973.

 
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