The country now known as Canada was built off the fur trade. For hundreds of years before Canada became an actual country, the European traders were fully reliant on Indigenous peoples to trade goods for fur with, build alliances, access to new fur territories, and ultimately survive in lands that were not their own. The traded furs traveled back across the Atlantic for use in European fashion, most famously for the beaver-pelt top hats worn by men.
This relatively peaceful period between Indigenous and European traders ended with the American Independence as the British scrambled to take control of the areas north of the 46th parallel in order to prevent American expansion. This signalled an era of intensive colonial nation-building on the Canadian side, with white settlers encroaching on Indigenous lands as expansionist Government policies pushed people west, causing increased competition for dwindling natural resources like fur. The Treaty making process between the Government of Canada and Indigenous groups was supposed to secure a future for Indigenous people in the face of the rapidly changing realities brought on by colonization. Indigenous leaders understood the Treaties to guarantee their right to hunt, fish and trap in their lands. The Government saw it as a means for guaranteeing its access to the rich natural resources of the region.
Despite this, many Indigenous peoples today continue the tradition of trapping as they have for hundreds of years, as means of continuing their connection and presence on the land. This essay explores the modern-day fur trade, across the regions of what is now known as northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, spanning Cree, Dene, and Metis lands within Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 territories. In many ways, very little about the structure of the fur trade has changed; wild furs are trapped in the remotest and wildest regions left in northern Canada and traded on the international market at a distinct handful of auction houses across the world. At the same time, trapping in and of itself is rapidly becoming a lost art—fluctuating fur prices and the emergence of the farmed fur industry, pressures from animal rights groups, and dwindling animal populations in the face of rapid industrial development—all make the traditional lifestyle of the trapper less attainable for people. But a handful of people continue to trap and live out the values that trapping espouses, passed from one generation to the next: connection to the land, care of animal populations, working with your hands for a living, diligence and dedication.