The first of these forces was the amalgamation of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC)
in 1821. The NWC had always been more tolerant of intermarriage than the HBC, who remained uncomfortable with the idea up until and after the merger. In this post-union period, the HBC began to hire more educated young British men as officers. Most of these men were imbued with
19th century Victorian middle-class ideals of love and marriage. These ideals dictated that a gentleman should find a wife
who reflected and adorned his position of respectability and success; in other words, she was white, of good repute, and of a class that was above physical labour. A man first had to acquire a certain amount of financial security prior to marrying such a lady and in the meantime he could fulfill his sexual needs with a different sort of woman whose morals were not as high. In the transference of these ideas to fur trade society in Western Canada, the Aboriginal and mixed blood woman became this sort of woman in the eyes of some of the HBC officers. Prostitution increased at the forts, it became an increasing rarity for an officer to marry an Aboriginal woman and fur trade employees were often discouraged from intermarrying.
The historian Sylvia Van Kirk discusses in her 1980 book, Tender Ties, how many
Aboriginal and mixed blood women may have believed that, when they engaged in relations with these officers who viewed them simply as sexual objects, they were becoming their wives. This belief is partially due to the marriage custom in fur trade society called
"mariage à la façon du pays" or "mariage after the custom of the country," an indigenous marriage rite that involved an agreement between the two parties - the trader, and the bride and her family - and some sort of payment to the bride's family. It involved little formal ceremony, especially in comparison to Christian marriage ceremonies, but was still regarded by those who understood it to
be a serious binding of two partners. For instance, the Chief Factor of
Rocky Mountain House, J. E. Hariott (who married Elizabeth, the mixed blood
daughter of Chief Trader J. P. Pruden) stated:
was not customary for an European to take one wife and discard her, and then
take another. The marriage according to the custom [of the country] was
considered a marriage for life...I know hundreds of people living and dying with
the woman they took in that way without any other formalities.
Many officers, however, did not regard
their relations with Aboriginal women in the same light as Harriott. Van Kirk describes one instance in which Governor George Simpson formed a union with Betsey Sinclair, the mixed blood daughter of a former HBC officer at York Fort. Apparently she and many members of the fort (she was referred to as Mrs. Simpson in one journal) regarded the union as a
mariage à la façon du
pays; however, Simpson referred to her as "his article," "an unnecessary & expensive appendage," whom he passed off to his friend when he left the fort. Therefore, many of the new officers of the HBC did not respect the customs of intermarriage within fur trade society and as a result the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal and mixed blood women increased.
"Categories and Terrains of Exclusion: Constructing the 'Indian Woman' in
the Early Settlement Era in Western Canada." Telling Tales.
Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: University of British
Columbia Press, 2000.
Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many
Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. Winnipeg: Watson &
Dwyer Publishing, 1980.