It’s been a long, record-breaking cold winter here in Toronto. Not what we’re used to, but we’ve lived to tell the tale. But I can’t help but ponder the season in the context of HBC history and wonder at the impact winter has made.
Voltaire once famously dismissed North America – or more specifically, New France – as “quelques arpents de neige” – “a few acres of snow.” And so it must have seemed at the time. Our winter was a cruel revelation to the Europeans who laboured under the false notion that the climate here must be similar to their own, particularly at the same latitude. A look at the latitude of Britain or southern France, compared to Canada, will quickly demonstrate the folly of this pseudo-science.
But the fact remains that winter was an essential feature of the fur trade. The fur trade year was divided into two seasons: winter and everything else. Those seasons were themselves demarcated by annual weather events, the self-explanatory “freeze-up” and “break-up”. Winter was, in many ways, the most important time of the year.
The success of the fur trade relied on quality. The furs produced in Canada were (and still are) top-notch, and that reality is directly tied to the extreme climate. Animals respond to the cold by producing thicker, lusher, more dense coats. The colder the temperature, the better the furs. So harsh winters were a key element of HBC’s business success.
Meanwhile, what were the traders doing while Mother Nature was busy helping to create the commodity they sought? In fact, winter was the social season. Work pretty much slowed down as the weather put a damper on most trade-related activities. But frozen lakes and rivers were actually well-suited to long distance travel by sleigh, sled and dog team or snowshoe. So, with more leisure time and less work to do, winter was the time for visiting, transferring personnel between posts, and catching up on paperwork.
One of the most colourful fur trade traditions, that of the Beaver Club, was born out of a need to fill the long winter days. A creation of the North West Company, it was founded in Montreal in 1785 as an exclusive social club for the fur traders known as “winterers” – those who had spent at least one winter in the interior. The Club’s primary function was to provide a venue for members to gather and reminisce. Members met every second Wednesday from the first week of December until the second week of April. Meetings took the form of elaborate multi-course dinners, which lasted well into the wee hours and were notorious for their serious drinking and raucous revelry. Invitations to attend were few, far between and highly sought-after.
Today, of course, the winter means something entirely different. It signifies Holiday Season and that all important fourth quarter, wherein the year’s success or failure will be determined.
Just as in the past, winter brings closure on the one hand and the chance to recharge and reset for the new year to come.