Cost of Living

More uncertainty hits Canada's wild fur industry when it's already down

The fur trade was one of Canada's first land-based businesses, but today our country's wild fur market is a shadow of its former self, with a recent auction seeing falling prices for many species.

Flight restrictions, flat-lined prices are some of the challenges 2020 has brought

On August 30 and 31, 2020, the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ont., hosted the only in-person wild fur auction to take place in North America in 2020. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

The final results of North America's only wild fur auction to happen in 2020 have been tabulated and while sales show some improvement since March, there haven't been any great gains since last year.

It's the latest blow to what could be dubbed Canada's original economy — the wild fur trade.

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Fur Harvesters Auction Inc., based in North Bay, Ont., hosted a two-day in-person sale at their warehouse August 30 and 31. It was followed by an eight-day auction held online.

According to the posted results, wild mink, larger beavers, fisher, lynx cats, otter and badger went mainly unsold.

Not all the financial results were negative, with 90 per cent of the available white and silver fox, western heavy coyote and grizzly skins having sold at prices either at, or above, the prices set at earlier Fur Harvesters auctions held in March 2020 and May 2019. Top lots among timber wolves, wolverines and raccoon also sold well.

But many of the 23 species offered, including muskrat, sable, otter, lynx and cross fox, saw prices fall below the already low averages set in March.

A sample lot of coyote furs sit waiting to be inspected at the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ont. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

Fur Harvesters CEO Mark Downey said the in-person sale "went kind of as expected." 

"We knew going into this thing that only Canadian brokers could attend," said Downey. COVID-19, along with international border and flight restrictions meant that the usual international buyers were unable to attend.

"So that took basically the rest of the globe out of the picture and the global business is very important to us. It's a big world, but it's a small industry."

Close to thirty Canadian brokers attended the in-person auction in North Bay.

Hundreds of red fox furs hang waiting for sale at the only Canadian wild fur auction still standing. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

Downey says the Canadian brokers capitalized on getting orders from international buyers who wanted to come but couldn't cross the border due to COVID-19 and the Canadian government's travel restrictions.

"Every broker in the room was actively bidding the whole time," Downey said. "They had a phone in their ear, so it's kind of a new reality. It just goes to show you if somebody wants something, they're going to find a way to get it."

Polar bear skins are laid out for inspection by buyers at Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ont. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

In March, Fur Harvesters was forced to cancel its in-person spring sale due to the COVID-19 lockdown. The auction items were forced online at the last-minute, leading to low or no sales among many species.

Sales numbers and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 are another blow to Canada's wild fur industry, following the unexpected bankruptcy of the North American Fur Auction (NAFA) in fall 2019.

Fur's decline isn't just about luxury goods

The decline of the fur industry in Canada speaks to broader issues beyond the actual economics of fur trading, according to University of Toronto economic historian Dimitry Anastakis.

"It really reflects our connection to our environment in some way," said Anastakis in an interview with CBC Radio's The Cost of Living.

Seal skins are among the wild fur for sale that is harvested in northern Canada and tanned using traditional techniques. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

Anastakis said that having moral views on fur and fur trading is legitimate, but regardless of those views fur has been an "essential aspect of the Canadian landscape" and once knowledge of fur trapping and hunting is lost as the industry fades away, it's difficult to replace.

Among the hundreds of thousands of furs for sale at the August auction were four grizzly bear skins. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

"It's kind of like people who do stained glass in old churches. We lose that knowledge because we don't do it anymore … in fur this has been probably the most dramatic because fur is the most symbolic for Canada and Canadians," said Anastakis, who pointed to symbols such as the beaver on the Canadian five cent coin as a reflection of this country's connection to the fur trade.

"It symbolically, and actually in the real world, retains that connection that we as humans have to our natural environment. Once we get rid of that, we kind of get disconnected."

In addition to wild fur, the Fur Harvesters Auction had some smaller quantities of ranch fur available, including the ranch mink seen here. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

Anastakis did point out that other crafts have started to reappear after almost disappearing.

"There's all kinds of craft brewers kicking around. And it's really almost like a 19th-century job that has become a 21st-century vocation because people are interested in that kind of authenticity," he said.

The yellow tags attached to these bobcat furs indicate the animals were harvested in the United States and have been checked and certified to ensure they are not endangered species. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

The economic historian did point out that he believes fur may have a different trajectory, because of moral and ethical positions on the product and trade.

"But I think fur will always exist in a very small way because it really is an authentic way of living, which really does speak to an age old tradition, which we do connect ourselves to nature," said Anastakis.

Timber wolf fur samples set for sale at the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, Ont. (Tracy Fuller/CBC)

Most of the people attending this summer's auction in North Bay, Ont. said they believe there will be a future to fur, but some admit the industry is getting smaller and that was happening before any of the problems that began in 2020.

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"A lot of the major department stores have banned fur …there's less demand," said Selma Arany, director of sales and marketing at Splendour Fur in Montreal.

"The younger generation will not wear fur."

Click "listen" at the top of the page to hear this segment, or download the Cost of Living podcast.
The Cost of Living
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