Manitoba Historical Society
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Manitoba History: Review: The Fur Trade in Canada: An Illustrated History by Michael Payne

by Scott Stephen
Parks Canada, Winnipeg

Number 59, October 2008

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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As Michael Payne observes in his introduction, it is not easy to summarize over 500 years of fur trade history: Payne makes the job even more challenging by giving himself less than 100 pages in which to do it. What he has produced is like a platter of historical hors d’oeuvres, a collection of tasty tidbits that leave us wanting more.

Payne has approached the history of the fur trade from many angles, having taught high school history, earned a PhD, and worked with historic sites and archives. Not only is he aware of the complexities of the topic, he makes no attempt to hide them from his readers. Although he never has the space to elaborate, he highlights the diversity of furs and goods that were traded, the complex roles that First Nations played in the trade, the many important ways in which women contributed to the business, and the multicultural nature of fur trade communities.

The book is richly illustrated. Some of the images will be familiar to those who have read similar books, while others are seldom seen; but all of them bring something to the story. For instance, towards the end of the book there is a photograph of Fort Edmonton being dismantled while the Alberta legislature building rises in the background, a powerful visual representation of the transition from one social and economic world to another. Not only is there a healthy mix of historic images, Payne’s public history roots show in his liberal use of photographs from current historic sites and costumed interpretation.

However, this is never in danger of being just a picture book. Payne’s lively prose fills most of the pages, covering a lot of ground from centuries-old Aboriginal trading patterns to the fur trade of the 20th century. As he points out, the fur trade is a key element in Canadian history, touching all the regions of the country and involving many of its peoples in a shared enterprise. This book invites us to learn more, whether through further reading or by visiting the many museums and historic sites across the country.

Page revised: 15 February 2015

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