It was kind of sad to hear this past week that the Hudson’s Bay Company had been sold to an American financier named Jerry Zucker. I had mixed feelings, as I am sure is the case for many Aboriginals.
In the Cree communities, I remember some Cree Elders being incredibly loyal to the Bay. Some Elders would talk about how HBC saved their lives during the hard times. Others would say the Bay was a rip-off artist, pointing to the story of piling beaver pelts as high as the length of a musket in order to buy one. Not satisfied with this huge profit margin, the Hudson’s Bay Company added a foot to the length of the musket.
Nonetheless, the Bay has been with Aboriginal people for more than three centuries. It is one of the oldest continuous running corporations in the world. It was founded for the express purpose of dominating the fur trade in the “New World,” arriving on the shores of Eeyou Istchee in 1670.
I have lived in Mistissini, Moose Factory and Moosonee, so I’ve seen the Bay in its historic geographical origins during its long decline as an economic force in the north. In Moose Factory, the huge boarding home used to be full of Hudson’s Bay staff; a bustling beehive of workers that, at the end, housed only a few clerks.
At the end of their presence in the north, that is. The Bay, long before it sold out to the US, sold off its northern holdings, thereby leading to the creation of the Northern Stores. Perhaps in 300 years we’ll see if they are a worthy successor.
The Bay changed the life of the Crees with steel traps, muskets, metal axes, knives, pots, flour and other trade goods.
Eeyou Istchee hosted the oldest inland fur trade route in North America, much of it along the now-threatened Rupert River. The transport of goods into the interior and of furs to Rupert House (now Waskaganish) on the return trip were done with Cree canoe brigades. The Crees were the only natives to be so trusted by the Bay that they wouldn’t send a clerk along to make sure nothing was stolen. The brigadiers, most of whom were from Mistissini, would be paid a pound of nails for their work.
In the 1920s, so many non-Crees were coming into the territory and trapping out the beaver that some Crees began to do it themselves. As the beaver disappeared, the Cree economy collapsed around 1929. This is when the Cree hard times began and the people starved.
Seeing the growing disaster, a Hudson Bay staffer named Jimmy Watt bought up remaining beaver lodges and their inhabitants to create a sort of beaver preserve. Crees saw the wisdom in this and left them alone so the beavers could repopulate areas of Eeyou Istchee that had been decimated.
Amazingly, the Quebec government, the Bay and the Cree kept this preserve going even through the Great Depression. By 1944, the area had a beaver population of over 13,000 through these efforts.
There was the other side to the Bay, of course. Beaver tokens were issued to Cree instead of real money for their furs. You could only spend a token in a Hudson’s Bay store. These came in various denominations depending on where you were and the quality and quantity of the fur.
They were used until 1955, when the practice was outlawed. The monopoly business style of the Bay was over.
It had a profound effect upon the Crees and should be remembered as such.