The 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 First Nations 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 was, 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. In its most complex, it included the
late fur trade ritual of the choosing and dressing of the fur trade
It was only after these rituals were performed that the trading
begin. In its usual form, it 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
- Trade closed with the giving of some small additional gifts to the least
members of the Aboriginal group
The valuation of the furs was based on
the value of one prime beaver skin. This value was called a "Made
Beaver" or MB. Each animal skin was given the value of a certain
number of MB.
Similarly, the trade goods were valued by the number of MB it required
to purchase them.
During the time of fur trade rivalry, the gifts at the beginning of
trade were chosen to encourage the 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.
From the European traders’ perspective, the fur trade did not always
result in monetary profit. During the French era, the companies granted
fur trade contracts had further obligations to plant new communities.
The French fur trade, while an important part of the economy, was almost
incidental to the push for exploration and expansion. During the time of
rivalry between the NWC and HBC, one of the main factors in whether or
not there was a profit was the expense of travel. So long as the HBC
could depend on middlemen, they maintained a profit balance. While the
NWC could make the trip to and from their farthest post in one season,
they could profit.
That is not to diminish the effect of the rivalry between companies
on the bottom line. The Aboriginal people 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.
After the amalgamation of the companies, the HBC developed a form of
pricing and book-keeping known as "over-plusing." It was basically a way
of adding in the costs of trade to the price of trade goods brought from