Inquiry Question: What were the impacts of the fur trading industry (Hudson’s Bay, Northwest Company, and people) on the Canadian environment/landscape?
During the colonization of the New World by the Europeans, many settlers saw an opportunity of wealth and sought to find riches such as gold. To their surprise, they found something just as good; animal fur.
Fur played a huge part in the success of the new colonies. Bringing in a profit meant investments from Europe, which in turn translated to the growth of European communities in North America. But this seemingly endless supply of fur, was to no surprise, finite. Due to over trapping and hunting of fur, populations of beaver, and other fur bearing animals, were pushed to near-extinct levels. Hundreds of thousands of furs were exported to Europe each year. Thankfully, nearing the 19th century, the paradigm of fashion in Europe transitioned towards silk, relieving the pressure for fur.
Cause and Consequence
To look at why things happened the way they did, we must look at the wants and fears of the historical actors present during the events. Commonly, settlers sailing towards the great new land searched for a new life and opportunity. A more opulent life than to the one which they had left behind. Although they dreamed of success, they had rolled a dice. Accepted a gamble. They faced having to raise money in a young economy. These desires pushed the new citizens to search for a profit. And during that period, fur was plentiful, expensive, and accessible. A perfect calling for a business.
At first, the mark left by humanity was not noticeable. The colonies were small, and businesses small in number. But as time passed, more people got involved, more people joined in. And by the turn of the century, beaver populations are speculated to have dropped by 80-90%. The mass spread of colonization additionally brought a wave of towns, forts, and posts to a continent previously covered in flora and fauna.
To picture the amount of decrease in the population, the image below shows how long a line of 60 million beavers (estimated beaver population before fur trade) would be compared to the US-Canadian Border. Each Centimeter represents 1000km, each tick represents roughly the length of the border (6,400km), and the spikes you see next to the beaver image is just to conserve space on the paper.
Yeah, that’s a lot of beavers, but why does that matter? Of course there would be many of them! But if you look carefully, the part of the line highlighted in blue represents the same line of beavers at the start of the 19th century (or two of those if you are optimistic).
Continuity and Change
During the fur trade, the historical actors abused the natural resources and nearly depleted the populations of entire species such as beaver. Their wants and fears forced them to look upon money, and not the environment. We see a similar story today, with the constant use of different natural resources, burning up and emitting harmful substances into the air. If we take a peak into the past, we can see that businesses relying on the use of natural resources can alter the equilibrium of nature. The beaver is considered a “keystone” animal to Canada, providing and creating a suitable home to many other species (a key component to the ecosystem). An example of an abused “key” today is our air. Recently, I went on a trip to Korea, and there I witnessed the extents of pollution to the point were the Government had to send warnings
on your phone to NOT GO OUTSIDE.
To me this was an eye opener, we together, as a society, need to deeply consider the long term effects of the change we are capable of.
At first I thought this project was going to be simple, a nice easy DOL to end the week with. But it happened to become a lot bigger than I anticipated. I only had the chance to research about one animal (and topic). The beaver, which I thought to be the most important. But there are many other animals that were hunted during this time (e.g: Marten, Geese, Minks, Seals, Racoons, Otters, THE LIST GOES ON). Additionally, the question I wanted to better understand was not just about animals, but of the change to the environment as a whole. This would include things like new diseases carried by Europeans that harmed the communities and environments of the indigenous, to the change caused by the sudden eruption of human population.
However, with the research that I was able to complete, I can corroborate that the fur trading industry left a great mark in history. Rapidly changing the course of the continent by introducing new things, and taking away/decreasing important necessities.