Profit and Ambition: Canada’s epic fur-trade story

September 11, 2009

Profit and Ambition: Canada’s epic fur-trade story

Gatineau, Quebec, September 11, 2009 — The Canadian Museum of Civilization presents an epic story of fortune, endurance and adventure on Canada’s path to expansion and development. Profit and Ambition: The Canadian Fur Trade, 1779–1821 profiles the North West Company, an extraordinary consortium of Montréal entrepreneurs, Scottish explorers, French-Canadian voyageurs, Métis bison hunters, Aboriginal trappers and “country wives.” Together, they created a commercial empire, opened new routes across the continent and laid the groundwork for the Canada we know today.

“The North West Company played a dramatic role in our economic, social and political development,” said Dr. Victor Rabinovitch, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation. “This exhibition does a magnificent job of explaining that contribution to Canada’s existence.”  

Profit and Ambition traces the North West Company’s rise and fall. It draws a riveting portrait of the fur trade’s cutthroat business practices and its physically demanding way of life. It also introduces Museum visitors to some of the towering figures of Western Canadian exploration, such as Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, David Thompson and Peter Pond.

“This is a truly epic story,” said David Morrison, the exhibition’s curator and Director of Archaeology and History at the Museum. “Under the banner of the North West Company, diverse peoples were brought together, heroic feats were accomplished, Montréal’s role as the commercial centre of Canada was established and the influence of British North America was extended from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Arctic oceans.”

Starting in 1779, the exhibition also traces the fierce rivalry between the Montréal-based consortium and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), headquartered in London, England. The HBC had dominated the Canadian fur trade for over 100 years, conducting business at trading posts on the shores of Hudson Bay, which allowed direct sea access to Europe. To compete, the North West Company forged new trade routes in the south, reaching out to Aboriginal traders on their way to Hudson Bay, and also used ruthless tactics.

In just over 15 years, the North West Company gained control of nearly 80 per cent of the Canadian fur trade. But the competition was ruinous to both companies, eventually leading to their amalgamation.

Historic artifacts and works of art
Profit and Ambition features about 250 artifacts and works of art. Among the many notable items are trade goods — such as muskets, metal tools, jewellery and ornaments — and articles of Aboriginal and European clothing. Many of the objects date from the late 1700s. The exhibition also features original North West Company documents such as partnership agreements, voyageur contracts and account books. An especially treasured object is a very rare first edition of Alexander Mackenzie’s published journal, which has been restored by the Museum.

Works of art include