Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights. Part 3: How Beaver were the Reason Canada Exists.

Human beings kill. We kill plants and animals at an incredible rate and transform their basic life elements into ourselves when we eat them. We cannot do otherwise. We must ingest other organisms to survive. We are generally omnivorous. That means we will shove anything and everything down our throats even if now and again we choke on something. So, we kill for food. We also kill for fur, bones, scientific research and just for fun. We seem to enjoy driving lead into other animals and into each other. We have institutions that encourage it, thousands of them. The market is one of the most important ones but the military is close behind as is factory farming both on land and water.

For this blog post, however, I want to focus on one historical incidence of our obsession with killing other animals, and it’s on beaver that I focus my attention here. This post is about our obsession with killing beaver leading to the creation of Canada.

I’ve already written about how the fur trade was initially (in the 16th Century) incidental to the fishery on the Grand Banks and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From there, and moving into the 17th Century, the fur trade moved inland. Samuel de Champlain first arrived in the St. Lawrence River in 1603 and in the next couple of decades travelled up the Ottawa River, along a trade route that had existed long before contact, to the Mattawa, Lake Nippising, the French River and on to Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. In 1968, Parks Canada published a book by Eric W. Morse called Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada/Then and Now. With an introduction by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who canoed with Morse on occasion, the book presents a detailed first hand exploration of historical fur trade routes and their conditions as of the publication of Morse’s book in 1968. The current landscape barely resembles the one extant when Champlain first explored it in the first half of the 17th Century. It seems we just couldn’t leave well enough alone. We killed off most of the beaver whose dams mitigated flooding and erosion and replaced them with concrete dams and culverts. What could go wrong? Ask Sudbury. It just declared a climate emergency. It sits at the epicentre of the historic beaver kill off.

Morse’s book clearly shows how the fur trade routes originating in the St. Lawrence essentially followed the southern edge of the Canadian Shield all the way to Lake Athabasca via Lake Superior, Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, the North Saskatchewan River, and winding it’s way into the Mackenzie River drainage system through La Loche in what is now northern Saskatchewan. In a sense, a shorter route to the interior was via Hudson’s Bay and it’s drainage system which included Lake Winnipeg, but which followed a number of routes inland depending on the time of year and the conditions at the time. The fur trade necessarily followed the geography of the rivers, lakes, and portages that would lead to the quickest and most efficient route to the money embedded in beaver fur. The further away from salt water the beaver had to be hunted because of their depletion along the established routes the more the trade cost in terms of infrastructure and human power. For the first hundred years until at least the 1650s, Europeans had not set foot in the interior as traders. Indigenous middlemen such as the Algonquin, the Huron and later the Odawa and others west of the Great Lakes, including the Chippewa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi and further west, the Dakota Sioux, the Assiniboine and the Cree. In the north, the Chipewyan were dominant. To the west of them the Strange, the Sikani and the Carrier among others east of the Rockies. The Tlingit provided important trade routes to the West Coast as did the Tahltan who were connected to the coast along the Stikine River, and other groups.

Every Indigenous group in what is now Canada coveted European trade goods the moment they first encountered them and did whatever it needed to do to get them including waging war with their neighbours or competitors wherever they might live. For instance, the Iroquois (as we know the Haudenosaunee) terrorized the Montagnais and other groups who trapped beaver and wished to trade with the Europeans along the St. Lawrence and down the Richelieu River to Lac Champlain and beyond. By 1650, the Iroquois (mostly the Mohawk) had routed the Huron and broken up their Georgian Bay trading empire. The Wendat (Huron) had earlier displaced the Algonquin. Once they became dependent on European trade goods, Indigenous peoples no longer had fetters in their hunt for beaver. They participated wholeheartedly in the industrial pursuit of beaver fur. Indigenous peoples were the workforce for the fur trade and were thus not deliberately eliminated. The Americans, in contrast, worked to systematically eradicate indigenous populations south of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico because they were in the way of agricultural settlement moving west at an increasingly rapid rate. They did not succeed entirely but there is little left of pre-contact indigenous culture. Of course it’s true that there is very little left of European culture of the 15th Century either.

To follow the settlement of the west in the early 1870 with the creation of Manitoba and British Columbia, with Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 is to know that the area north of the 49th Parallel was to remain tied to the British Empire as a part of Canada. The Americans realized early that they could advantageously trade with the Northwest Company to bring furs through Michilimackinac. John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company, the wealthiest American of the time arranged a deal where his company, the Michilimackinac Company, and the Northwest Company agreed to mutually respect ‘their’ territories. Astor was an astute businessman and negotiator. His strengths as a trader lay on the Pacific Coast and in the Lake Michigan area and he was more than willing to leave the north to the British (for a price). Ultimately the trade in beaver fur would be the base of his wealth, but it would not remain so. Astor made most of his wealth in New York real estate after the signs of the demise of the fur trade were too clear to ignore. Harold Innis writes:

“The northern half of North American remained British because of the importance of fur as as staple product. The continent of North America became divided into three areas: (1) to the north in what is now the Dominion of Canada producing for, (2) to the south in what were during the Civil War the secession states producing cotton, and (3) in the center the widely diversified economic territory including the Now England states and the coal and iron areas of the middle west demanding raw materials and a market. The staple-producing areas were closely dependent on industrial Europe, especially Great Britain. The fur-producing area was destined to remain British…

The Northwest Company and its successor the Hudson’s Bay Company established a centralized organization that covered the northern half of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific…It is no mere accident that the present Dominion coincides roughly with the fur-trading areas of northern North America…The Northwest Company was the forerunner of the present confederation.” ( from The Fur Trade in Canada, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1930, page 396)

From this perspective, the true Fathers of Confederation are Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson and Simon Fraser of the Northwest Company rather than John A. Macdonald and Etienne Cartier.