Thunder Bay

Fur harvesters in northern Ontario hope for better days as spring live auction approaches

After a tumultuous few years, there's hope the Canadian fur industry can begin to bounce back, with plans to once again host in-person auctions in northern Ontario and the Fur Harvesters Inc. auction set to return in North Bay in March.

North Bay-based Fur Harvesters Inc. auction plans return to live event in March

Wolverine pelts with Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur tags are handled at the 2018 Fur Harvesters Inc. auction in North Bay, Ontario. After going online during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are plans to return to an in-person auction this spring. (Submitted by Fur Harvesters Inc.)

After a tumultuous few years, there's some hope the Canadian fur industry can begin to bounce back, with plans to once again host in-person fur auctions in northern Ontario this spring. 

In 2019, the North American Fur Auction. one of the largest players in the industry, filed for bankruptcy protection with Deloitte, leaving the Fur Harvesters Inc. auction in North Bay, Ont., as the main player in Canadian fur.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, shutting down international travel so key to the fur and auction industry. 

That meant the traditional, in-person fur auctions went to an online platform.

This March, the plan is for the fur auctions to return to being held in person if pandemic protocols allow it.

"We are optimistic that a live auction can happen this year," said Mark Downey, executive director of the Fur Harvesters Auction. 

"Our plan was to pick our sale dates for the end of March [March 27 and 28] and that will be our first sale of the 2022 season ... We figured  that was our best chance of having an old-school, live traditional auction." 

Although the online auction did help move product during the pandemic, it was second best to having an in-person experience, Downey said. 

Mark Downey of the Fur Harvesters Auction says major fur buyers such as Russia. Finland and China have been contacting them ahead of this years auction in March. (Fur Harvesters Auction/Facebook )

"You can't do justice to a sample of fancy sables with a picture on the internet." he said. "There's nothing that beats when you run your hands through fur, looking at it in person compared to getting on the phone."

Fashion companies drop fur

Another hit came from luxury fashion companies that have announced they are dropping or plan to drop using fur. 

Canada Goose may be the most-high profile case, announcing last June it would phase out fur on its products by the end of 2022. 

Several others — including Versace, Michael Kors and Gucci — also have decided to stop using fur, while apparel makers Nike Inc. and Gap are looking to make their products more sustainable to cater to eco-conscious shoppers.

The main fur Canada Goose had used was coyote, for trim on the company's trademark $1,000 outerwear.

Downey said the exit of Canada Goose from the fur industry has had a ripple effect.

"That was a shock." he said. "It definitely has had an impact."

The markets are being adjusted to account for this, but Downey said the true effect will only be seen once the auction takes place. 

"The only way you know what the true market is is to have a live auction where you have 100 or 200 people in the room fighting over the product."

Katie Ball, of Thunder Bay, Ont., says trappers are a 'stubborn bunch and always want to see our fur do well. ' (Katie Ball/Supplied)

Katie Ball, a trapper and furrier in Thunder Bay, Ont., said that despite the tumultuous times, trappers continue to do their work and people continue to buy fur.

Ball, who has a fur shop north of Thunder Bay called Silver Cedar Studio, said she has been busy throughout the pandemic, which surprised her. Despite some adjustments in the fur industry, Ball believes when the auction happens, the demand will be there.

"People want fur and they want to wear it," she said. "I think it will be a better year for fur."

Downey said that while they hope a live auction will happen, the situation with COVID-19 is volatile, so it is difficult to plan ahead. 

He said they will wait until at least Feb. 20 before they "pull the trigger" and give the event a green light. Then they can start planning to have international buyers.

"That's still our hope," said Downey. "But the coin still in the air, whether it's going to come down heads or tails in our favour."