CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 20. . . . June 6, 2003
Do you remember the "Great Stories in Canadian History Series" of the 1950s, 1960s and beyond? It was a marvelous collection of dozens of monographs that retold the daring tales of Canada's great explorer- adventurers, priestly martyrs, soldiers, sailors, and airmen, mounted policemen and Native chiefs. They were great! If you don't recall them, check your elementary school library, and you will certainly find at least a few titles. Perhaps a tattered copy of Marjorie Wilkins Campbell's Nor'Westers: The Fight for the Fur Trade will be there. It was originally published 50 years ago and won a Governor General's award (1954). In her 1984 CM review (Vol.12: 1), Maureen Harper wrote that instead of "dull" Canadian history: "...I found an incredible history of one of Canada's first business ventures into an unlikely new commodity, fur pelts used to create men's high fashion hats. The story of the fight between the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company for supremacy in the fur trade is an incredible story of heroism, hardship, and deprivation, almost unparalleled in any other country. Out of this struggle between the English on the one side, and the Scots, French, and some Americans on the other, came the exploration and eventual settlement of Canada's great northwest."
Nothing has changed since the time of Ms. Harper's review. Campbell did tell a splendid tale of a motley crew of argumentative independent traders who took on the Hudson's Bay Company and nearly succeeded in taking it over, lock, stock and beaver pelt. The stodgy old company, which by the end of the 1700s should have changed its name to the "Company of Non-Adventurers Trading into Hudson's Bay," was transformed by the competition, and the infusion of new young blood revitalized its moribund spirit.
As superb a tale as it is, The Nor'Westers suffers from being a product of a time that was much less sensitive to Aboriginal people and women during the fur trade era. To get the furs it needed, the Nor'Westers lured the aboriginals with rum and provided it in much greater quantities than the HBC. There is no recognition that this activity had a detrimental affect on these peoples' way of life and culture. In fact, in Campbell's eyes, trading rum for furs is a completely reasonable and legitimate business activity. As well, the women the fur traders took as their wintering companions or "bit of brown" to be discarded are seen as acceptable diversions for the men of the north. However, rather than banishing the book as being politically incorrect, teachers in senior classes could rightly use these aspects of The Nor'Westers as an example of how historical writing evolves as social and political climates change in society.
Ian Stewart teaches at David Livingstone School in Winnipeg, MB. Ian owes most of his historical knowledge of Canada to his reading dozens of the books in the "Great Stories of Canadian History Series" when he was a young history geek.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.