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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
Country Wives/Summer Wives

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A pillar commemorating David ThompsonOf course the development of the Métis nation is largely due to the women who married European traders. Women, whether First Nations or of mixed background, were absolutely invaluable to the men of the fur trade. They cemented trade alliances, taught their inexperienced husbands how to survive the elements, and prepared the meals that fed an entire industry. They played an essential role in the trade.

Initially the HBC forbade their employees to bring their wives with them to the Bay. Also, relationships between British traders and Aboriginal women were forbidden. The French or other European traders married freely in the Aboriginal community as the NWC was far more tolerant of intermarriages. The HBC were uncomfortable with intermarriage even after the amalgamation of the two organisations in 1821. The post-amalgamation period saw the HBC hire more young and educated young officers who in turn brought with them their sense of Victorian morality. One aspect of Victorian culture dictated that respectable young men marry equally respectable young women, but men were allowed to take mistresses whereas women were not. Oftentimes, Aboriginal and Métis women had no choice but to become prostitutes, when they discovered that the men they had been having relations with did not plan to marry them. The result was an increase in prostitution at trading posts. Many officers of the HBC did not respect the customs of intermarriage developed during the fur trade.

The first country marriages to leave traces in the HBC records were of Chief Factors and Traders to women from the tribes that lived around the post. One of the first intermarriages to appear on record was that of Governor Joseph Adams who sent his daughter home to England in 1737. Some of the other early findings in record included a letter Governor Richard Norton received from the London Committee on the topic of his "Indian Woman and Family" in 1739 and a record of the death of Humphrey Martin’s Cree wife in 1771. By the end of the 18th century, the main records of these families were left in the form of bequests in wills. Matthew Cocking left bequests for the two of his three wives who survived him. John Favell, who died in 1784, left bequests to a widow and three children at the Bay. By the 19th century, it seemed that the HBC had relinquished the idea of control and stipulated only that they not be required to bear the expense.

The French employees of the NWC, encouraged the taking of "country wives" because they understood how beneficial it was to the trade. One pattern that was described among the Great Lakes Métis was the marriage of the leader of the brigade to the daughter of the head of the Aboriginal band where they were trading. His men would find marriage partners among other women in the tribe. The tribe leader would, somewhat later, take a second wife from among their children. These marriages had obligations attached to them.

Under the NWC, there were trade practices that made marriage and family life more difficult. The yearly trips and the mobility of the work force were two such practises. All fur trade employees were subject to being moved to a different post or being sent as a courier at any time, without consideration of family. There was a fur trade ‘arrangement’ to take care of these problems called ‘turning off’. It was an arrangement by which a worker, knowing he would not return to the post where he had started a family, would "turn off" his wife and arrange for another man to take over as her spouse.

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