North West Company reverses decision to stop buying fur

After criticism, The North West Company has decided it will continue purchasing fur from trappers at its Northern stores across Canada.

N.W.T.'s trappers insulated from changes by fur program

Wolverine pelts with Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur tags are handled at the Fur Harvesters Inc. auction in North Bay, Ont. The North West Company has reversed its decision to stop buying furs. (Submitted by Fur Harvesters Inc.)

Less than a week after The North West Company announced it would stop buying trappers' furs at its Northern stores, it did an about-face and reversed its decision that same week. 

"It alarms a lot of trappers," said Robert Grandjambe Jr., an experienced trapper from Mikisew Cree First Nation.

The North West Company's decision to end fur buying prompted criticism in northern Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba — regions where Northern stores play a role in the fur market.

The decision to restore fur buying was a direct result of those criticisms, said Derek Reimer, the company's director of business development.

"It's a very small percentage in terms of revenues but we understand the historical significance and importance to the communities from the economic standpoint … and also from a cultural perspective," he said.

They had a lot of disgruntled customers raising their voice.- Francois Roussow, Fur marketer with N.W.T. government- Francois Roussow, Fur marketer with N.W.T. government


The North West Company announced last Wednesday it will buy furs at Northern stores in partnership with the Fur Harvesters Auction.

The relationship between the company and trappers goes back to the early 1600s. Asked whether the company's history played a role in reversing the decision, Reimer said the company acknowledges its responsibility to communities.

N.W.T. fur program protecting trappers

Today, trappers are more likely to sell furs to the the Northwest Territories government than the North West Company. The government's Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur Program connects trappers with international markets and insulates them from market fluctuations. 

There are around 650 trappers who currently sell through the territorial program, said Francois Roussow, a fur marketer with the N.W.T. government's traditional economy division. 

"Personally, I think every jurisdiction should be running something like this especially in their northern communities to assist trappers to get out on the land," he said.

Roussow said in the N.W.T., the Northern store is a "last resort" point-of-sale for trappers. 

Even so, he said, the company's initial decision to abruptly leave the fur business was a mistake.

Trappers in the N.W.T. still use the Northern store if it's their preference, or to get faster money, which they can use at the store, said Roussow. 

What's more, he said, The North West Company's long history in the fur trade should imbue them with a responsibility to give back to communities.

"They had a lot of disgruntled customers raising their voice," he said.

Decision reflects decline of industry

The North West Company's decision to cancel fur buying aligns with industry trends, said Roussow. 

In November, a historic fur auction went under creditor protection

A bump in the road is not going to stop trappers from trapping.- Robert Grandjambe Jr.- Robert Grandjambe Jr.

The ranch market, which farms fur, affects demand for wild fur, as well. Years of overproduction mean the market is saturated, said Roussow. 

It became "boring to have a mink coat," said Roussow. 

Now, it's a matter of educating buyers on the kinds of species and quality they can get from the wild fur market.

Getting young people into trapping is another top strategy, said Roussow. 

Robert Grandjambe Jr. in his trapping cabin, a few hours from Fort Chipewyan, Alta. He spends half the year out in the wilderness, harvesting animals for a living. (Danny Cox )

"A young trapper goes out and comes back with a healthy catch and is now that individual in the community, who is looked up to. He's cool — or her," he said.

Robert Grandjambe Jr. is in his 29th trapping season. He hasn't sold furs to the Northern store since he was a teenager in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., just a few hours from where he traps today. He sells his catch to the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur Program.

In his early days, he said, he didn't know about auction houses and was getting a quarter of the value he could have on a pelt. 

"I didn't know any better and [The North West Company] was my only resource to get my furs sold."

He learned to trap from his father and grandfather. For Grandjambe Jr., harvesting fur isn't only about money — it's about keeping trapping alive. 

He said The North West Company's decision to keep buying fur is good news for trappers who need the Northern.

He says it's important to get people out on the trap line and to be sustainable. 

"We have a responsibility to maintain that relationship and continue being on the land," he said. "A bump in the road is not going to stop trappers from trapping."