The North West Company and the Development of Canada

The North West Company played a major role in Canada's development as a nation decades before Confederation.

In their quest for fur during the latter 1700s and early 1800s, the NWC explored a huge portion of the North American continent, linking the St. Lawrence to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Today, many lakes and rivers in the north-west bear the names of Mackenzie, Pond, Fraser, Thompson, among others, clearly illustrating the ambition, energy and drive of the Nor'Westers.

Row of marching demeuron soldiersBy occupying this territory and conducting trade within it, the North West Company helped to establish British dominion over the West. Without the constant presence of British traders, this land would have likely fallen to the United States.

Unwittingly, the Company helped to shape the settlement patterns of Canada. Most of their posts, situated as they were at the mouths and forks of rivers, became natural places to settle. The present cities of Winnipeg and Edmonton as well as Prince George, Jasper and Brandon, all sit on sites of former NWC posts.

By locating its headquarters in Montreal, engaging Canadian and Métis labour and using local resources for provisions, the NWC also acted as the mainstay of the Canadian economy. Montreal fur traders helped to establish the first banks and created a solid economic base for the fledgling country by reinvesting their money here instead of abroad.

In the north-west, the Company utilized Native technology, including birch bark canoes and babiche (moose hide netting) snowshoes, two means of transport that will always be associated with Canada. This was a mutual exchange, as European technologies were similarly introduced to and appropriated by Native peoples.

The greatest cultural link between the Company and the Natives came in the form of the creation of the Métis nation, which is still a vigorous entity in the west. In fact, the whole multicultural composition of the Company can be seen to prefigure the make-up of modern-day Canada. The Native peoples, the Scots, Canadiens and the Métis, were thrown together in the fur trade.

While their relations may not have always been harmonious, the fact is that these people managed to work together within a single enterprise. They must have possessed something of that spirit of tolerance and compromise that we like to think characterizes Canada today.