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History of Trade

The trading systems between First Nations people existed long before Europeans arrived. Through trade, many Nations were able to develop friendships, relationships, and alliances. First Nations people often traded with each other for resources such as food, plant seeds, clothing items, and art materials.  

The practice of reciprocity was always customary. Reciprocity means showing equal respect and always returning something of equal value to the person.

Several illustrated Indigenous men trade items with each other.

Reciprocity means each person gets something of equal value in a trade.

The Fur Trade

There were different groups of Europeans arriving on the East Coast and racing to establish a relationship with the First Nations people. The Spanish, Dutch, French, and English (Great Britain) all had trading companies. Trade relationships between the newcomers and the First Nations people were formed.

The fur trade between the First Nations people and the European traders was generally a good one. The Europeans wanted the furs and other skins and pelts. First Nations people admired the tools and other resources that made daily life easier. For example, a metal axe is much stronger than a stone axe and can be used in various ways, and a rifle and gun powder made hunting easier than a bow and arrow. 

An illustrated man and woman are wearing fur coats and hats.

Fur coats and hats were worth a lot of money in Europe.

An illustrated bow and arrow and rifle lay beside one another.

A rifle made hunting easier than a bow and arrow, but only if you have shells for the rifle!

The fur trade brought a very different form of economy and trade for First Nations people. Prior to the fur trade, the economy among First Nations was relationship-based. There was no competition involved.

The fur trade introduced the idea of ‘profit.’ Profit is the leftover value from a trade. For example, Europeans typically made profit on trades with First Nations peoples because items like axes were relatively inexpensive compared to the amount of money a fur was worth.

An illustrated settler is trading an Indigenous man a gun for a rabbit.

Before the fur trade Indigenous people would only hunt when they needed to, but soon animals were hunted only to sell the furs.

Fierce competition started between different tribes and nations that normally didn’t compete with each other. Often old alliances between nations would diminish because one group would enter another group’s territories to hunt animals for their fur.

Although First Nations people received items when they traded furs, overall the fur trade was detrimental to their traditional system of trade.

Two illustrated Indigenous people stand together to talk in front of a group of tipis.

The new way of trading and high demand for furs changed the lives of First Nations people forever.

Beaver Pelts

The beaver pelt was very valuable to Europeans at the time. The reason the beaver pelt was very special was that it was waterproof. The Europeans used beaver pelts for waterproof hats and other clothing. The beaver glands (castors) were also valuable and used to make imitation vanilla for baking.

An illustrated beaver sits.

Beaver pelts were in high demand.

Hudson’s Bay Company

The Hudson’s Bay Company (H.B.C.) was the biggest fur trading company between 1640-1840. The Company was involved mainly in the fur trade. The Hudson’s Bay Company set up fur trading outposts to trade with First Nations people. They were on all the major rivers and in areas near First Nation camps or easy road access.

A photograph of the Fort Pelly trading post in 1887. Two non-Aboriginal couples are posing for a photo, standing on top of the new plank fence palisade.


Fort Pelly was located at the Indian Elbow of the Assiniboine River located eight miles southwest of the site of the present village of Pelly. Fort Pelly was built in 1824 by the Hudson’s Bay Company.

However, by the 1850s, the fur trade was no longer as important because of a lack of both supply and demand of furs, and in 1870 the Hudson’s Bay Company sold its land to the Government of Canada.

The Hudson’s Bay Company logo is shown with two illustrated moose standing and touching a shield that has four beavers and a fox on it. It says ‘Incorporated May 2nd 1670’.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was the biggest fur trading company in Canada between 1640 and 1840.

All in all, the relationship between the First Nations people and newcomers was complicated. Newcomers sought new land to live on, but the land did not belong to them. Newcomers established relationships with the First Nations people in order to live on this new land, however, those relationships were often abused in the desire for power and control. Alliances and enemies were made.

A photograph of Chief Whitecap, Dakota chief of Moose Woods reserve, and members of his family grouped outside two tipis on the plain. The white-haired chief sits on the ground with two women while a younger man, a child, and a woman with a child stand near them.


Chief Whitecap and Dakota Chief of Moose Woods reserve and members of his family grouped outside two tipis on the plain.