Audio Transcript Hinge of an Empire

Hinge of an Empire


NARRATOR: The year is 1816, and it is the height of the fur trade in North America.


The canoes are filled with trade supplies from Montreal, destined for the interior. The paddlers have worked for six weeks to get here.

This is Fort William; inland headquarters of the Northwest Company, the largest fur trading enterprise in the world! A commercial empire that stretches from London, England, across British North America, and all the way to Canton, China. And Fort William is the hinge on which that empire revolves.


Despite its impressive walls, Fort William is not a military post. Unlike the forts that dot the American frontier, its role is not to subdue or displace the native inhabitants; on the contrary, the success of the company and its mainly Scottish partners is dependent on a strong partnership with the Aboriginal peoples.


This was a way of life that defined what would become Canada. For the wealth these men enjoy is the fruit of skills developed and refined not only by these relative newcomers, but by generations of French traders and their native allies.


It began when Basque fishermen from Europe met the Aboriginal people of what became Newfoundland and Labrador, where they traded goods for furs. The exchange continued when French explorers met the people of the Algonquin and the Iroquois nations. The natives had evolved a complex social system that included extensive trade with their neighbours. Groups such as the Huron quickly saw the advantage European products could bring to their lives. Fortunately, they had something to offer that the Europeans wanted just as badly: the pelt of the beaver.

Fur was more than a fashion statement for the rich who wore fur trimmed robes, wraps, muffs, gloves, and most importantly beaver felt hats, to show off their wealth and social status. There were few beavers left in Europe, so merchants looked eagerly to North America's seemingly endless supply.

Aboriginal trading networks and alliances existed long before the arrival of the first Europeans, and extended far into the continent. The Huron quickly became the first middle-men, taking trade goods inland to the Ojibwe and Cree, and bringing furs out. Soon, the European traders were joining them on their trading trips, sometimes becoming part of their society through adoption and marriage, as was the case of the young Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who went on to establish the Hudson's Bay Company.


French settlement in North America proceeded slowly. Partly because the fur traders had no wish to see settlers displace their best customers and suppliers; the fur trade was dependent on native trappers. Unfortunately, European diseases like smallpox devastated Aboriginal societies in North America, and dramatically changed traditional cultures.

As time passed, the fur trade took on a complex structure. Warehouses in the east prepared the goods for trade; pots and pans, knives, axes, traps, guns, ammunition, blankets, jewelry, and alcohol. Every spring, young men of the colony loaded their canoes with trade goods and struck off into the woods in search of pelts to feed the European appetite for beaver hats.
After the British conquest of New France in 1759, French merchants and fur traders in Montreal were replaced by men from England, Scotland, and the thirteen colonies, later the United States of America. Ambitious men, like Simon McTavish, James McGill, Isaac Todd, and Alexander Henry. In the trade routes and connections pioneered first by Aboriginal peoples, then later by the French, these men saw a way to challenge the authority of the Hudson Bay Company. In 1784 they merged their individual interest to form the Northwest Company, to do just that.


There was nothing haphazard about these exhibitions; the merchants who became involved in the trade did so with the intent of making money. And to do so, they maintained strict control over their employees.

The voyageur, as they were now being called, were engaged in contracts that bound them to the Northwest Company and the directives of its officers. They essentially turned over their lives for the period of service.


Over the decades, their routes stretched longer and longer, until by the nineteenth century they extended far into the northwest. Speed was critical to the company's profits. To get from Montreal to Fort William in six weeks required dawn to dusk monotonous days of exhausting paddling, broken only by back breaking portages between rivers or around impassable rapids, where the men would haul canoes, supplies, and two ninety pound packs of trade goods on their already over-strained backs. These were hard working men, used to intense labour. Even so, their lives were not easy. But for many, the pay and adventure made it all worthwhile.


Fort William was located here for several reasons. An operation stretching from Company headquarters in Montreal to the Pacific coast needed a transhipment depot to supply this vast network. For years Grand Portage had served this function. In 1803 the North West Company moved their operations thirty miles north to the mouth of the Kaministiquia, to keep the fort in British territory.

Here, at the annual Rendezvous voyageurs from Montreal, called Mangeur du Lard, or Pork Eaters, joined those who wintered in the west, called Hivernant. Both groups journeyed to Fort William; the Hivernant with fur from the interior and the Mangeur du Lard with trade goods from Montreal. The winterers' recruits were expected to take on their values and customs and to measure up in all things. They called themselves Hommes du Nord (or men of the North) and considered themselves a cut above the Montreal voyageurs whom they dismissed as "Pork Eaters," a reference to the provisions of salt pork, bacon, or pork fat these voyageurs from the East were provisioned with.


The North West Company took their trade to the peoples of the interior rather than waiting for the natives to come to them. That meant travelling over great distances to meet with them. It was a mission not without great risk.


The risks would have been even greater if not for the generosity and friendship of the people they encountered. Nor'westers had to mix closely with the people of the land, learning the nuances of various cultures.


Montréal was far away and the Hivernant's world was the world of the Cree, Sahtu, Assiniboine, Ojibwa, Blackfoot and Chipewyan peoples among whom they travelled.
The North West Company's trading empire would extend across this world, as far north as the Mackenzie River and West past the Rockies to the Western coast.

From 97 posts, ranging from mighty bastions like Fort William and Fort Chipewyan to operations of just a few men, they waged their commercial war with their greatest rival: the London based Hudson's Bay Company. Between them, these two concerns moved throughout the North, expanding British presence to every corner of the northern half of the continent.


An overland Northwest Passage leading to the Pacific, then from there the Orient, had been sought for two hundred years. As the North West Company expanded its operations in the Athabasca this took on greater importance. Men like Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie and Simon Fraser longed to discover the illusive overland route to the western sea. This dream was eventually achieved by David Thompson and in 1814 the North West Company sent wintering partner Angus Bethune from Fort George, their fort on the Pacific, to Canton, China.


From their base on the coast, the Salish and Haida people were brought into the North West Company sphere. As they carved out their empire, these adventurers from the East and their native wives would create a new people. Marrying into the villages and families they traded with, they cemented bonds and built alliances and loyalties that would eventually give the North West Company the edge in their commercial war with the men of Hudson's Bay. Their children would become the Métis, one foot in each world, belonging exclusively to neither.
From their native families and comrades they learned the intricate arts of survival in this fertile but unforgiving land. Native partners filled an important political role as diplomats and tutors of language and culture. Without these bonds, few could have survived the harshest winter on earth below the artic circle. In times of vigorous competition, the commercial rivalry which existed between the North West and the Hudson's Bay Companies took on the appearance of all-out war. In the absence of any strong government they were the law and attacks on each other's property and men became frequent.

In 1816, following a battle in which Nor'westers were implicated in the deaths of twenty-one Hudson's Bay Company employees at their colony on the Red River, an armed force under Lord Selkirk occupied Fort William itself. Not only was this an intolerable break down in law and order, it was bad for business.


In 1821, the two companies merged under the charter of the Hudson's Bay Company. In name, the North West Company ceased to exist though many of the traditions that they had established continued.

Over the next 50 years the fur trade on the prairies remained the primary economic activity of the region. From the impromptu exchanges of first contact it had evolved its own rituals and spectacle. And as the trade prospered so did the new people it had created. The Métis became the provisioners of the trade, hunting buffalo and supplying the trading posts and forts. Princes of the plains, they would enjoy the freedom of its enormous spaces until, after 1869 the Hudson's Bay Company turned over governance to the new nation of Canada who decided that the future of the north west territories was settlement and they and their native cousins would be pushed aside for the incoming homesteaders and the railway that would bring them.


The merging of the companies gave the former Nor'westers access to the sea ports on Hudson's Bay. Fort William was no longer the hinge of an empire but the foundations were laid for the country that would become Canada, the country we know today; a distinct nation with peoples, languages and customs as varied as the land itself.