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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
Grueling work, long hours and months in the bush or paddling on rivers were realities of the voyageur existence. Perhaps French-Canada’s most important contribution to the fur trade, these robust trappers and traders were the fathers of the Métis Nation and the first group of Europeans to extensively explore the Canadian West. Called voyageurs due to the long distances they travelled, most came from farms along the St. Lawrence River, although some were from Montréal. All signed contracts, becoming engagés or contracted servants. Voyageurs were divided into classes depending on their experience and skill. Young men fresh to the trade were dubbed "mangeurs de lard" (pork eaters), while those who had survived at least one winter in the bush earned the title of “hivernant" (winterer). The voyageurs were loyal to their French heritage, but developed distinct customs that identified them as a group. Although incredibly strong, the average voyageur was short of stature, so as not to occupy too much valuable space in their fully-loaded birch canoes.
As the fur trade came to a close at the end of the 19th century, it was the voyageurs and their Métis descendants who would adopt a nomadic/agricultural lifestyle and be the first to settle the western frontier.
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