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Modern fur trade rooted in history

Published: 01/06/2013

Loaded with fur pelts caught on traplines across Northern Manitoba, modern-day trappers descend on Thompson every year to sell their wares to the highest bidder. The Thompson Fur Table connects aboriginal trappers, visitors and buyers to the history of Canada's fur trade.

With their giant bags, boxes and Rubbermaid bins stuffed with fur pelts of all description, more than 200 trappers wait for their number to be called.

They're inside a church hall in Thompson, Manitoba, hoping to land a good price for their myriad pelts including beaver, ermine, otter, fox, wolf, marten, mink and wolverine.

Meanwhile, buyers armed with briefcases bulging with cash, stand at the ready.

For two days every December, St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church Hall transforms into a bustling slice of history as buyers from across Canada and Manitoba fur trappers-some travelling hundreds of kilometres on ice-covered roads from remote outposts-descend on this Northern hub for the Thompson Fur Table.

"It's a rare fur market in the old Hudson's Bay Company style," says Cherry White of the Manitoba Trappers Association, which hosts the annual event mid-December.

Down to Business

The hall is lively and loud with a boisterous crowd of buyers, sellers and curious onlookers. The mood is jovial but making deals is serious business.

Trappers' fur hauls represent months and months of work in the bush tending traplines. Buyers-representatives from commerical fur auction houses, Northern Store, and independents-are here to get the best fur for their buck.

Selling and buying follows regimented rules.

Trappers start arriving at the church as early as 5:30 a.m. and are assigned numbers in order of arrival.

Trappers are called one by one, in order, to sell their pelts.

Traders take their turn piling their bounty in front of the first buyer who examines each pelt before writing his offer for the entire lot on a slip of paper.

The furs are then pushed along a long row of tables past each of the four buyers who write their bid down. After the last buyer has offered a price, the bids are revealed.

The trapper chooses the best price offered and walks away with a pile of cash for months of hard work.

"It's an important source of revenue for residents of remote communities," says White. "They can sell locally, and with several buyers vying for their goods, they get a better price."


Buyers at the annual Thompson Fur Table pay good money for fur pelts. Photo by Margo Pfeiff.

Friends and Family Reunions

Besides the trappers and buyers, the hall buzzes with families and friends who have also come from across the province to catch up. Visitors curious about the modern fur trade are also warmly welcomed.

"It's a kind of reunion for us as well," says Phillip Bighetty, a founding Fur Table board member and one of many elders at the event who have spent their lives trapping in the wilderness.

In the meantime, the church also bustles with vendors selling handmade beaded fur and leather moccasins, mitts and purses. There are trap-setting competitions with prizes for youngsters as well as demonstrations on beaver skinning and how to properly prepare a marten,a.k.a. a "marty," to increase its value.

The event inspires a new generation of trappers. A surprising number of trappers at the Thompson Fur Table are enthusiastic teenagers, part of a push to engage young people in trapping. Some learn the trade from their parents and grandparents while others attend special school programs that teach humane trapping techniques.

"The Fur Table is a fun opportunity to mingle and get to know Northerners while learning about a way of life centred around Canada's oldest profession," says Pete Wise, director of the Wild Fur Shippers Council. "It's a glimpse into the past."

To learn more about the Thompson Traders' Table click here.

Following the Rules: Humane Trapping explained
Manitoba trappers are required to follow humane trapping regulations as set out by the provincial government. New trappers are expected to pass a provincial exam that tests their knowledge of humane trapping methods and respecting the land. For a full list of humane trapping regulations clickhere.

Suggested Tweet: Traditional trappers trade pelts for cash at annual Thompson Fur Table. @TravelMBMedia http://media.travelmanitoba.com/2013/01/modern-fur-trade-remains-rooted-in-history/ 

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