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Pelts of destiny: A look at the fur trade

In this edition of Remember This, the Timmins Museum: National Exhibition Center looks back on the first and arguably the most important industry in what would become known as Canada: the fur trade
Many Indigenous and non-indigenous folks continued to harvest furs in the region for subsistence well after the decline of the fur trade at the turn of the century, preserving this way of life like these two unidentified men drying stretched muskrat pelts in the early 1900s. Timmins Museum: National Exhibition Center

From the Timmins Museum: National Exhibition Center:

Long before the gold rush and way before Ontario itself was so named, there was an economy based on fur-bearing creatures which scurried over this wild and beautiful land. Trading posts spanning vast distances, united by well-traveled routes, transformed the nation.

In the early 17th Century, luxurious furs became the obsession of Europe, and the French and English scrambled for access to this all-important resource.

Indigenous nations, which already had a sophisticated economy and domestic trading partners from neighboring regions, began trading with the outsiders and the Indigenous nation entered the world stage for better and for worse. 

Native fur traders often held the balance of power between the two European empires and often pitted the biggest players in the region, The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Northwest Company, against each other.  

HBC opted to hold their trading partners at arm’s length for the most part; meanwhile the French had a different approach. The rakish habitants adapted to, and adopted for themselves, the customs of the indigenous trading captains in the region and formed alliances of kinship though marriage, “à la façon du pays”. 

Before any trading actually took place a very particular etiquette and ceremony needed to be observed at the behest of Indigenous parties. 

Replete with dignity and pomp, these ceremonies which were very diplomatic in flavor began with volleys of musket fire in a salute to parties arriving most often by canoe.

Feasting followed, gifts were presented and remarks made, as with any diplomatic reception that would be held today. 

The trading parties in those days met as delegates to each other’s nation, a tradition which would regretfully become increasingly unbalanced as time went on.

Each week, the Timmins Museum: National Exhibition Centre provides TimminsToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Timmins Museum has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here.