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Manitoba History: Review: David A. Morrison, Profit & Ambition: The North West Company and the Fur Trade 1779-1821

by Michael Payne
Edmonton, Alberta

Number 64, Fall 2010

This handsome publication is the catalogue for an exhibit of the same name that opened at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in September 2009 and which remained open to the public until September 2010. The catalogue is well illustrated with contemporary and archival maps, other archival documents, a good cross section of documentary art work, and a carefully selected sample of artifacts from a number of museum collections. The text is slim, but effective, and adheres closely to current exhibit design ideas that suggest most museum visitors begin losing interest after about 150 to 200 words of explanation on any topic.

As a result, Morrison is forced to reduce subjects as large, complex and well documented as the role of country wives in the fur trade to less than 250 words and five illustrations. What Morrison says on this and most other topics is sensible and fair given his constraints, but unlikely to surprise or spark debate among any readers who have been following fur trade historiography over the last two or three decades. However, for museum visitors with a more general and less scholarly interest in the role of the North West Company in fur trade, this is just the sort of publication to introduce them to this fascinating aspect of our history. The exhibit and this catalogue are clearly aimed at a broad audience with an interest in fur trade history, but no particular desire to sit through a graduate seminar on the subject.

What interested me more than the content of the catalogue is its subject and the timing of this exhibit. The history of the North West Company is probably long past due for scholarly and popular historical reappraisal, as much of the basic research on the company and its operations is now more than half a century old. Older Canadian historians, schooled in the staples and Laurentian schools of Canadian historiography, placed considerable emphasis on the North West Company as a major factor in the creation of a transcontinental economic system that foreshadowed the later Canadian political federation. Morrison’s text does not emphasize this correspondence between commercial empire and political federation much, although the map of North West Company operations on page 62 does a good job of implying it in graphic form. By contrast, Morrison is clearly much more interested in social and material history and thus the fur trade as a way of life. This is clearly the emphasis of the exhibit and the catalogue, and reflects historiographical trends over the last few decades. However, most of the historians who have tackled questions of family and marriage patterns, social stratification, cultural exchange and hybridity in the fur trade have tended to use the vastly larger and more complete archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Indeed even in this catalogue it is striking how many artifacts and pieces of documentary art are associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company rather than the Nor’Westers. The moral of the story may well be that if businesses really want to live on historically they should invest less in naming rights on sports facilities and hospital wings and more in their archives and records management programs.

Page revised: 9 July 2016

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