The Fur Trade & the Voyageurs

NOTE: During the time of the fur trade and the voyageurs, Indigenous peoples in North America were often referred to as “Indians,” and European perspectives on Indigenous cultures were flawed. As you research this time period, you may encounter out-of-date language and stereotypes. 

This learning block represents one week’s work. Aim to watch at least one video and choose at least one activity or project to complete.

There are two videos to choose from about the Fur Trade. The first one is a quick intro, the second one will give you a deeper understanding. Feel free to watch one, or both!

Visit the Fur Trade Exhibit at Glenbow Museum

Now choose an Activity

Discover the voyageurs

The Voyageurs were hired by trading companies to paddle in massive canoes to trade imported European goods for furs. It was extremely hard and dangerous work, but it paid very well! Watch the video above to understand what the voyageurs went through and why they might choose such difficult work!

Think about:

– What do you think it was like for voyageurs? Think about being far from family, working outdoors in all conditions, and doing backbreaking labour. What would be most challenging? What would be most exciting?
– What CHARACTER TRAITS would make someone a good voyageur? What kind of person is well-suited to the life of a voyageur?
– What SKILLS did voyageurs need? Think about physical abilities, mental abilities, and social skills that may have been needed.

Write your thoughts into a paragraph or record a video discussing what it took for voyageurs to do their jobs successfully.

Listen to a Voyageur Song

The Voyageurs were working together to paddle large, heavy canoes in difficult conditions. They often sang songs in their native language French! The songs helped them to paddle at the same time, and to keep their spirits up during long days of hard, hard work! Listen to the video above to hear a traditional voyageur song. If you like, you can try to translate some of the lyrics into English! Go to Google Translate and type in the words you see in the video. Can you figure out what the song is about?

Dress Like a Voyageur

The video above shows us how voyageurs dressed in the 1700s! Their clothing was unique because of their lifestyle that revolved around canoeing for many hours a day, portaging (carrying the canoe over land), and because they were influenced by the Indigenous people they met and sometimes lived among.

As you watch the video, think about:

– Which voyageur clothing item is most surprising?
– Which one is your favourite?
– Would you like to try dressing in any of these items yourself?

Now it’s time for you to dress like a voyageur! Don’t worry about getting it just right – use what you have around your home to make your own version of a voyageur’s outfit. You might want to try to find your own version of:
– a bridgecloth
– a linen shirt
– leggings
– garters tied under the knee
– neckwear
– sash
– waistcoat
– leather slip-on shoes
– red toque/hat
– capote (overcoat)

Don’t forget to take a photo of your voyageur outfit for your portfolio!

Imagine Life for Indigenous Women in the fur trade

The fur trade, which enriched many European settlers, was entirely dependent on Indigenous populations to function. Indigenous men trapped and hunted to get furs to sell. Indigenous women cleaned the furs and prepared them for sale. The fur trade changed the whole dynamic of family life. Many Indigenous women were married to Europeans and ended up working without pay in the fur trade, and were often left to care for their children alone when those men eventually returned to Europe.

In this project, you will first research what life was like for Indigenous women (First Nations or Métis) during the fur trade. Begin with the video above. As you watch, write down things that stand out about these women’s experiences.

Next, you will check out How Furs Built Canada, an issue of Kayak Magazine. Pay special attention to pages 9, 12 and 13. You may want to look through the whole magazine to fully understand the fur trade, but that is optional! Write down notes from what you learn. Finally, look at this information from The Indigenous Peoples’ Atlas of Canada. Skim through until you find the section about Indigenous women, and take notes from what you read.

Imagine that you are in the shoes of an Indigenous woman working in the fur trade. Review your notes to get ideas about what your life may be like.

Think about:
Are you married? To whom? What work is your spouse doing?
What type of work are you doing?
Do you have more control or less control over your life?
What are you hearing about from friends and relatives?
Do you feel that your family is better off now that beaver pelts are so valuable?
Do you have any hopes or fears for the future?

Write a letter or a journal entry about this experience.

Upload your journal entry or letter to your portfolio.

Play The Fur Trader Game

If you have someone with you to play with, you can try this Fur Traders Game created by Kayak Magazine at home! Before you dive into the game, you may want to have a look at page 11 of Kayak: How Furs Built Canada to see what a beaver pelt could be traded for!

You will need: 
– a copy of the Fur Trader’s Log Book printed out for each kid who is playing
– stapler or glue
– somebody to be the Company Trader (this could be an older kid or an adult)
– a set of Beaver Pelt & Trade Item cards printed out for each kid who is playing

Step 1: Make your Log Books by folding the paper and stapling the pages together.

Step 2: Cut out your Beaver Pelt & Trade Item cards. You will need ONE set of Trade Item cards for each player, but only one set of Beaver Pelt cards for every TWO players (or, half a set per player). Organize the Trade Items so that they are organized into separate piles by type of item.

Step 3: The Company Trader will spread the Beaver Pelt cards all around the play area (this could be a room or an outdoor area like a backyard or park). The Company Trader also needs to set up a trade area with all of their Trade Item cards. 

Step 4: The Fur Traders (everyone who is not the Company Trader) write their names on their Log Books, then begin the hunt! Collect enough Beaver Pelt cards to make your first trade, then run over to the trade area to arrange the trade with the Company Trader. All the Beaver Pelt cards should be glued or stapled into the Log Book, along with the Trade Item card that the Fur Trader is “buying.” 

Step 5: Go back out to hunt more beavers! Keep hunting and trading until all the Beaver Pelt cards are used up!

– Did you feel that the Trade Items were “worth” the number of Beaver Pelts?
– Did it seem like one person was getting a better deal than the other?
– Imagine this game were real life. Instead of collecting cards, you have to trap or hunt all those beavers! How would you feel about that? Why?

Go ahead and add your Log Book to your portfolio, along with your reflection on the game.

Discover Black Voyageurs

Most people don’t know that there were Black voyageurs who worked in fur trade alongside White Europeans. Historians are still working on uncovering more details about these men who were part of an important time in Canada’s history! In this activity, you will learn more about a few of them.

First, watch the video above about voyageur George Bonga.

Next, check out pages 24-27 of Kayak: How Furs Built Canada

Ask yourself:
– What did you learn?
– What surprised you?
– What did this make you think about?

Now you will choose ONE of the Black voyageurs profiled in Kayak magazine and make some kind of presentation them. You might want to make a poster, create a short Powerpoint or Google slides presentation, or film a video. Make sure you include:
– a photo of the person (if available)
– their name
– what you have learned about them
– why you think it’s important for people to hear their story

For printable photos of several Black voyageurs, click the links below:
George Bonga
Étienne (Stephen) Bonga
Sir James Douglas

Add your work to your portfolio when you are done!

Books About The Fur Trade & Voyageurs

Click on a book to buy it from Amazon. Or, you can ask for them at your local library. 

The Littlest Voyageur Read Aloud

The Voyageur’s Paddle Read Aloud

NOw Let’s Have some fun!