Traditionally, which led to the birth of European Canada.

Traditionally, it has
been maintained by historians, archaeologists and social scientists that the
Métis were a mere by product of the great continental fur trade, which led to
the birth of European Canada. , while the Métis emerged as a people largely as
a result of the fur trade, they did, nevertheless, develop their own group
cohesion, which often proved contradictory to the aspirations of their fur
trade superiors or their First Nations relatives. Most early Métis worked in
the fur trade some were also independent farmers, hunters or fisher people and
because of this fact, a great deal has been made of the Métis’ role as fur
trade facilitators and agents of the fur trading companies’ interests. Other
factors must be considered, including the emergence of Métis populations in
Atlantic and Pacific Canada due specifically to the fishing industry. Also, it
should be remembered that people have a will of their own and despite close
ties, family or work-related, between the Métis and the fur trade companies,
the historic Métis had their own agenda.

The skills which they had
inherited from their First Nations, Canadian (French Canadian), Scots and
Orcadian (from the Orkney Islands) ancestors made them highly valued, but all
too often under-appreciated employees of the North West Company and the
Hudson’s Bay Company. Also, it should be noted that, while Métis society was
consensual and more democratic then British or British-Canadian society during
the fur trade era, the Hudson’s bay Company was an oligarchic body which had
little interest in including its lower rung employees in the decision making process.

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The
Early History of the Fur Trade in Hudson’s Bay

In 1668, the historic
ship Nonsuch set sail from England to Hudson Bay. The voyage, which was
sponsored by a small group of individuals with close ties to the court of King
Charles II, was considered a huge success. As a result, a Royal Charter was
granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) on May 2, 1670. Eighteen individuals
were identified as the founders of the Company — among them was the King’s
cousin, Prince Rupert.

The objectives of the
newly formed company were threefold. Its primary goal was to discover a new
passage to the south-seas. The second goal was to establish trade for furs,
minerals and other commodities. The third goal was to colonize the territories
of Rupert’s Land. Thus, the fur trade was neither the singular, nor the most
important objective set forth by the newly formed company. Yet it is from fur
trade accounts, journals and correspondence that the 3 early history of Western
Canada is best understood.

The Cree were the
Indigenous occupants of much of the area surrounding Hudson Bay long before
European traders arrived. Indeed, the Cree are known to have occupied both the
lower Churchill River as well as the Hudson Bay Lowlands throughout the
seventeenth century. HBC employees referred to those Cree who lived in the
immediate area of the Bay as the “Home Guard First Nations”, while the Cree and
Assiniboine who lived inland from the Bay were called the “Upland First
Nations”. As a matter of fact, the Cree and Assiniboine had become well
acquainted with the fur trade long before the HBC moved into the Bay. Through
trade with Aboriginal “middlemen” from what is now Central Canada,
they had successfully obtained trade goods for furs. Therefore, when the HBC
first arrived at the Bay, First Nations tribes were eager to establish trade
relations with Company officers.

How
the early fur trade was conducted

The HBC chose to set up a
line of trade posts along the shores of Hudson Bay. Each post was strategically
located at a point where a river drained into the Bay. It was along these
waterways that HBC traders waited for Aboriginal middlemen to bring packs of
furs down to the Bay. Once furs were collected, they were bundled for shipment
to European markets. One of the most important posts on the Bay was York Factory.
The Company needed to set up some type of trading system to ensure that highly
valued furs were brought to their forts at the Bay. However, when they began
trading with Aboriginal middlemen, they entered into an existing First Nations
trade network. This network had its own rules of conduct as well as firmly
established alliances. The difference in the approach taken by the HBC,
however, was for Company traders to “single out” one individual with
whom negotiations could be carried out. This individual was not necessarily one
who was already a considered a middleman in existing Aboriginal trading
networks. By offering gifts and conferring honour/special status upon these
individuals, the HBC hoped to secure access to the best furs available. As a
result, a network of Cree and Assiniboine “middlemen” was quickly
established.

Over time, the Trading
Ceremony became a blend of First Nations and European traditions. Following Aboriginal
protocols, the ceremony took place within a social context of formal exchange
and reciprocity. The smoking of a pipe by the Chief Factor and the Aboriginal
Trading Captain followed the Aboriginal way of smoking. Similarly, gift giving,
the sharing of food and drink, and speechmaking also became important
components of the Trading Ceremony. Following highly structured European
protocols, the formal acknowledgment of those arriving to trade was often marked
with the firing of arms. A specific manner of dress was also required the
Aboriginal Trading Captain was provided with formal trading attire at the
expense of the HBC. In this manner, the combination of protocols served to
reinforce the social and political positions of those involved in trade.

As early as the 1680s,
the London Committee realized its predicament. How did they try to remedy this
situation? In 1690, they sent Henry Kelsey inland to seek out the Assiniboine.
His task was to encourage them to come down to the Bay to trade. Kelsey and his
party who served as guides for the journey, traveled through vast regions of
boreal forest, grasslands and prairie in what is now Western Canada. As a
matter of fact, 7 Henry Kelsey is credited as the first European to see both
the Saskatchewan River and the enormous buffalo herds that roamed the northern
plains.

The HBC had some serious
problems to solve. They needed better survival skills to keep from starving in
the interior. They needed to divert Aboriginal traders from the dealing with
the Pedlars. They also had to re-affirm trade alliances with inland groups, as
well as make new trading partnerships. This required HBC traders to travel
inland and build more trading posts. Obviously, the Company faced many new
challenges! How did the HBC rise to the occasion? They turned to the First
Nations and Métis for assistance. As a matter of fact, the HBC became
completely reliant on these people to help them achieve their goals.

Finally,
the HBC realized they could no longer ignore the increased competition for
furs. In 1774, the HBC therefore established a fur trade post in the interior
of Rupert’s Land at Cumberland House.

The
Beginnings of the Métis with the HBC Trade

It was partly in 10
response to observations regarding inland survival, which had been made by
Company servants such as Henry Kelsey, Anthony Henday and Samuel Hearne. Each
of these individuals had traveled inland on different occasions. They were
successful in their endeavours only when First Nations accompanied them.
Without the knowledge and skills of their First Nations companions, they would
never have survived in the wilderness. Although a good number of Company
servants approved of First Nations-trader marriages, others did not. Similarly,
while some high-ranking officers married more than one woman, many of their
colleagues disapproved of such arrangements. The highly structured HBC tried to
keep their lower ranking servants from entering into marriage with Aboriginal
women, but were not successful.

A First Nations wife had
the potential to contribute substantially to the fur trade. She familiarized
her trader husband with the customs and languages of her tribe. In addition, by
marrying into fur trade society, she acted as a cultural liaison between her
family and the Company. In this manner, there were benefits for everyone. A
trader husband benefited from a direct trading alliance with her family. Her
family had access to a trading post, and potentially, to a variety of trade
goods. She also brought a suite of invaluable “country skills” to her
marriage. These skills ranged from moccasin and snowshoe manufacture to food
provision and preservation. These skills proved invaluable to the HBC once they
moved their trading concerns inland.

The
Role of the Métis in the Fur Trade

Métis Women: – By the middle of
the eighteenth century, the HBC reported that the number of children resulting
from marriages at the Bay “were quite numerous”. As time passed, some
Company officers became concerned about the future of their children. As a
result, they made plans for their sons and daughters plans to ensure they
maintained a place in fur trade society. However, not all Company 12 sons and
daughters had the same advantages. Métis children were absorbed into fur trade
society in a variety of ways, depending on who their father was, depending on
their gender, and sometimes depending on their willingness to abide by their
parents wishes. Some Métis children chose to follow an Aboriginal lifeway,
rather than try to follow in their mother or fathers footsteps in fur trade
society.

Fur Trade Labourers :- The fur trade
economy of the nineteenth century required a variety of support workers, both
skilled and unskilled. Most of the labourers for this system were Métis and
First Nations. Since what is now Western and Northern Canada was isolated from
the manufacturing centres of Britain and the Eastern United States, much of the
manufactures and transportation and storage infrastructure needed for the fur
trade had to be constructed locally. In the 1821-1880 period, most tradesmen,
including blacksmiths, carpenters, boat builders, tinsmiths, masons, and
millers were from Upper or Lower Canada and Scotland. However, the Hudson’s Bay
Company (HBC) hired many Métis craftsmen to build Red River Carts, York boats
or to fabricate metal, primarily because their labour costs were lower than
that of Europeans. Occasionally, these labourers advanced
into administrative positions such as postmaster, clerk or factor if they
showed knowledge, commitment to service, and were respected by their superiors
and co-workers. Many HBC employees did a number of tasks outside of their
official job description.

Packing

The goods that were
transported throughout the trading territories were carried to and from
watercraft and over portages between waterways manually. The Métis and First
Nations were extensively employed in the fur-trade packing industry. People
loaded packs, generally of 40 kilograms each, on their backs and shoulders when
they were loading or unloading boats. When covering a portage, it was desirable
to do it in only one, or a minimum of trips. If people could carry several
packs at once, they could get their canoes or York boats into the water
quicker. What is astonishing is that they did not just carry one pack at a
time. Rather, it was commonplace to carry a minimum of two packs when walking.
And, while two packs was a common packing weight, some men carried in excess of
170 kilograms at a time This was a very labour-intensive job.

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