Veteran trapper Rusty Cordell grins victoriously as he surveys the growing mound of fur-filled sacks in his home-turned-depot. Every day more trappers arrive at Cordell’s home 48 km southeast of Thompson, Man., and hand over their beaver, lynx, squirrel, fox and fisher pelts to his wife, Nellie, who gives them a 50-per-cent cash advance on what the furs are expected to fetch at auction.
Cordell is part of a growing network of Manitoba trappers rebelling against the centuries-old domination of the fur trade by the Winnipeg-based Hudson’s Bay Company. With help from the neighboring Ontario Trappers Association, they have begun for the first time this season to collect their own furs and market them independently. Once a week, Cordell trucks the furs to the shopping mall in Thompson where the 16,000-member Manitoba Registered Trappers Association, of which he is vice-president, operates a collection house. From there, the furs are shipped to Winnipeg and then on to the Ontario association’s auction in North Bay. With promises of generous advances, quicker cash turnaround and no freight charges, the rebel band is winning new converts daily. “The word is spreading,” smiles Cordell, who has trapped for 43 of his 50 years. “The local buyers and middlemen had trappers over a barrel before, but we’re getting rid of them because we’re tired of exploitation.”
At stake is Manitoba’s $10-million chunk of Canada’s raw fur trade, which is worth roughly $100 million. The bulk of these furs are still collected by the Bay or private middlemen and sold to international buyers at Bay auctions in Toronto. Trapper-owned collectives, however, are gaining ground. The Ontario association’s share of the market has grown to 25 per cent since it held its first auction in 1959. Association manager Alex Shieff, who this month plans to start educational courses for trappers in Newfoundland and Labrador, estimates the association will pick up 25 per cent of the Manitoba market this year. Shieff predicts that before long the trapper-run auctions will be the only show in Canada. “Hudson’s Bay Company and its subsidiary brokers such as Dominion/Soudack in Winnipeg and Edmonton Fur Sales would like to kill me,” he laughs. “We now have 22,000 mem-
bers across Canada and we’re beginning to hurt them.”
This winter his association has loaned money to the Manitoba association to buy a new pickup truck, which shuttles back and forth from Winnipeg to Thompson, collecting furs at hamlets along the shivering shores of Lake Winnipeg. Emblazoned on the side of the truck in Cree and English is the legend TRAPPERS HELPING TRAPPERS. The message has reached Borchet, 1,200 km northeast of Winnipeg, where Chief Phillip
Bighetty of the Barren Lands Indian Band is flying and trucking furs to the Thompson collection depot every week: “About every man in our community has taken off to the traplines. They’ve seen the money. The ones that have sold their fur so far have been getting more cash in their first payment on their furs than they got from the Bay store who bought the furs outright.” On seedy Elgin Avenue in the decaying wholesale district of Winnipeg, the trappers’ truck pulls up to a warehouse, disgorging its bounty and a bone-tired Gilbert Ducharme, who has just driven 5,000 km in four days. Ducharme, 46, president of the Manitoba association, says trapper response has been overwhelming: “Next year I think we’ll need two extra trucks
because there’s just too much territory to cover. I have a phone at home and one in the truck and both ring all the time.” Ducharme says trappers were skeptical about the breakaway group at first, but nothing speaks louder than money: “In some cases our cash advances prior to the auction are larger than the full price the middlemen were offering. Lots of trappers have scoffed when I told them they’d be getting another payment in addition to the advance and they’re amazed when it comes. It’s like Santa coming before Christmas.”
Since final cheques did arrive in Manitoba seven days after the first North Bay auction Dec. 9 and 10, the opposition has been taking them more seriously. “When we first started the buyers reacted savagely and spread lots of rumors to destroy our credibility,” says a smiling Ducharme. “We called their bluff and I expect we’ll have almost $1 million in furs by the time of the next auction in February.”
Though the trappers’ association charges a seven-per-cent commission to sell furs—the same charged by Dominion/Soudak Fur Auction Sales—it began by offering more generous cash advances, there are no freight charges and final payments are promised within 10 days of an auction. The quick cash turnaround saves substantial interest payments charged on advances. Charges Cordell: “I know trappers who’ve waited months for final payments from the traditional brokers and they’re paying interest on Ducharme: ‘It’s like Santa coming before Christmas’ their advance all that time. I might
— ship furs in December, but their cutoff dates for auctions and delivery mean the fur isn’t sold until February and my cheque doesn’t come till March. Our system is much faster.”
At Dominion/Soudack, a Bay subsidiary, an angry Leonard Werner strongly disputes these claims: “We make final payments within 10 working days of their sale. This is just a tempest in a teapot.” Bay officials say they’re not worried. But their irritation will surely grow if the Manitoba association follows through on its plans to deliver food and trappers’ equipment next season at prices that undercut Bay trading posts. In the battle with the Bay, the fur may be just beginning to fly.
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