Doug Cuthand: Indigenous communities started the northern trade industry

The Cree were acting as middlemen, taking trade goods inland and trading for furs, which they used to purchase more trade goods.

For many city dwellers, January is the dead of winter. However, if you’re a trapper, it’s the busy part of the year. While trapping has tapered off in the past few years, it is historically the original economy of northern Canada.

While the plains were cleared of Indigenous people in favour of European settlement in southern Canada and the United States, the northern forests were left largely untouched until the 20th century. This allowed a flourishing commercial relationship between the First Nations trappers and European fur traders.

You are reading: Doug Cuthand: Indigenous communities started the northern trade industry

In the 1600s, European settlement had a tenuous hold in the American colonies and New France. In 1670, Prince Rupert and his company of adventurers got a land grant from his uncle, King Charles II of England, for all the land that was within the watershed of the Hudson Bay.

They had no right to do it, nor did they know how much land was involved, and Prince Rupert never set foot on Rupertsland.

For about a century, the company of adventurers traded along the shores of Hudson Bay and the Indigenous people came to them. What they didn’t realize was that the Cree were acting as middlemen, taking trade goods inland and trading for furs, which they used to purchase more trade goods.

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The Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) knew that without the Indigenous people there would be no fur traded, so they began vaccinating people shortly after the vaccine was invented in 1796.

Before fur trade, fur trapping was an individual thing, people trapped fur for their own use and most of their time was spent hunting for food. After the firearms were introduced, it cut back on the time spent hunting, so people began to go out on the land to trap for furs.

Each family had a designated area and after 400 years of the fur trade no species were at risk. First Nations managed their resources.

Fur trade stalled after a while — people needed a knife, iron pot and gun powder and shot. Because they were nomadic, they didn’t want a bunch of stuff. Then HBC had to innovate, and the result was bannock, a Scottish bread, and flour became an important trade good.

The iconic Hudson’s Bay blanket became their No. 1 trade good. This gave the Indigenous people a reason to go back to the trading post and settlements grew up around the posts, which were established on waterways and traditional trade routes.

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To the south, the great herds of buffalo were hunted to extinction and people were removed from the land, creating a total change in their way of life. The north was unique in that the people’s way of life remained largely unchanged. The fur trade brought wealth to both the traders and their customers.

In southern Canada and the United States, it was illegal to sell firearms to First Nations, but the people in the north, the Indigenous people, traded freely for firearms because the Bay wanted them on the trapline. As a result, the Cree were able to travel south and make an alliance with the Saulteaux and the Nakota.

They were known collectively as the Iron Nation because they had firearms. The plains Cree and the Ojibway, who were later known as the Saulteaux or Plains Ojibway, adopted the horse culture of the Nakota and together they moved south and west, removing the Gros Ventres and the Northern Shoshone as well as other tribes.

The fur trade changed the face of the plains and created the Cree commonwealth that exists from northern Quebec to the Rocky Mountains.

Doug Cuthand is the Indigenous affairs columnist for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation.

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