Trade and treachery: Who were the voyageurs?
The fur trade was the most economical and vast form of collecting, managing and selling goods across the country of Canada for nearly 250 years. At the beginning of the 16th century, the fur trade began to hit its peak. European settlers would catch fish from Newfoundland to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, while the Indigenous Peoples had created a systematic way of catching beaver to trade fur for fish and meats with the Europeans.
Voyageurs were the labourers who transported fur and various goods across long-distance distances—on water and land. This would require days, weeks, months of travelling under harsh weather conditions, with limited food and water, and plenty of encounters with dangerous wild animals. It was not an easy or safe job. The voyageurs risked their safety to maintain the trades between each post. The fur trade developed a social and economical relationship between the European settlers and Indigenous Peoples that was crucial to the development of Canada.
There were three characteristics of the Voyageurs that made them important to trade development and molded them into a necessary and specific part of society.
- Voyageurs were French-Canadian who had settled and began farming. They used their job as a voyageur to earn extra money and expand their farms, which would bring their families more goods to sell and use for their livelihood. A voyageur was their ‘second’ job, while maintaining their farmland was of utmost importance. They were not as involved in the fur trade as the Indigenous Peoples, who had created and maintained it between themselves and the Europeans.
- Voyageurs were taught by Indigenous Peoples. Much of the wildlife and weather conditions were foreign to them, and the Indigenous people taught them the necessary survival skills to ensure the protection of the Voyageurs and the delivery of the goods. Voyageurs embraced the traditional skills and practices of the Indigenous people to endure their journeys.
- Finally, the Voyageurs were a community of men only. Women were to stay at home with the children, while men maintained the farms or engulfed themselves in the trade. It did create social issues with drinking, fighting and gamblng during the long treks between the European and French-Canadian posts.
The Voyageurs played a number of roles, not all were gone for long periods of time or had to endure harsh conditions. Roles were filled depending on the voyageurs ability and what they could tolerate and survive throughout their journey.
The life of a Voyageur was demanding, and required resourceful survival skills to maintain the fur trade that the Indigenous had created. The Voyageur Challenge consists of a 5K, 10K and ½ Marathon – coming to an impressive 36.1km finish. This distance is a trek, it requires skills and determination of the participant much like the life of a Voyageur.