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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways
The Trade

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 captains.

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 desired
  • 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 Europe.

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Liens Rapides

Background

Montreal Peddlers

North West Company

Hudson's Bay Company

Geography and Ecology

The Trade

Provisioning

Buffalo Robe Trade

Company Employment (Wage Labour)

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