Ralph Parsons: The King of Baffin Land
Ralph Parsons at work at his desk, 1920s
Ralph Parsons was born in the small fishing village of Bay Roberts in 1881, and spent four decades serving HBC, climbing the corporate ladder all the way to the top of the Fur Trade Division while greatly contributing to Canada’s claim to the Arctic. Upon his retirement in 1940, he returned to Newfoundland where he spent the remainder of his life. Ralph Parsons died in 1956.
Although HBC had asserted its claim to Labrador as early as 1752, it wasn’t until 1834, after having eliminated much of the fur trade competition in its western territories, that a first fur trading post was established. Rigolet was selected as the site for this first outpost; it was there that future HBC Governor Donald Smith would begin his work with the Company, in 1838. Over the following decades the Company would build a series of posts all over Labrador and Northern Quebec.
It was this well established network of posts that Parsons joined in 1898. He was hired as a tutor to the children of Cartwright post factor, James Fraser. In 1900, encouraged by Mr. Fraser, Parsons joined the ranks of HBC as a clerk. In a quirk of history, it was in Rigolet that he was first apprenticed! In 1905, he was made manager of the North West River post, before going back to Cartwright in the same position in 1907. Two years later Parsons was summoned to go up north and begin trade with the Inuit population. Young and always keen to take up a challenge, he set out for Hudson Strait after only minimal preparation (which was the norm then), his team comprising a carpenter, a guide and a few assistants. Although he had no way of knowing it, the subsequent establishment of the Cape Wolstenholme post would mark a turning point in his career. And it began with him and two of his companions almost losing their lives!
HBC dwelling with wind charger, at Wolstenholme, Quebec, ca. 1944.
Cape Wolstenholme was chosen as the site for this first post on the Hudson Strait because of its seemingly ideal location for trade with the Inuit. Early in the first decade of the 20th century, the Company realized that the demand for arctic fox fur was about to explode – and that Canadian Arctic contained a vast supply of it, as of yet untapped. The first step in developing an arctic fox trade was to establish new relationships with the Inuit, who already exploited the fox. When Parsons arrived at Cape Wolstenhome however, there were no customers in sight. The Inuit being a nomadic people, he figured that it would be only a matter of time before they would know a store was open for them.
Parsons decided not to wait but to go and look for Inuit summer camps and hasten the development of a clientele. As soon as the foundations of the post were laid, Parsons and two guides boarded their small sail boat and went south along the coast. During their second night out, a gale destroyed the boat and most of their supplies, leaving them with only enough provisions for 24 hours.So unforgiving was the terrain that the return journey overland took them 4 days. They had to cut their clothes in order to protect their feet from the sharp rocks, so it was naked and with bloody feet that they finally arrived back at the post in a state of semi-consciousness.
It would be 2 years before the Cape Wolstenholme post would see its first clients, but in the end, it would be profitable. If anything, his initial misadventure only strengthened Parsons’ resolve. He went on to open 2 dozen more posts across the Arctic, mostly on Baffin Island, in Labrador and in Quebec. As Parsons was promoted to greater responsibilities he was put in charge of more and more territory. Largely because of his early development of posts around Hudson Strait, particularly on the south shore of Baffin Island, Parsons was nicknamed the “King of Baffin Land”. Gradually and steadily, he climbed the rungs of the corporate ladder, until January 1st, 1931, when he was named Fur Trade Commissioner.
Ralph Parsons sitting by a campfire
With the Great Depression at its height and the fur market at a historic low, Parsons was given the difficult task of reorganizing the division. While he made some headway towards renewed profitability, progress was slow as the world’s economies could not bounce back quickly. His task was made more complicated by the fact that he did not always see eye to eye with the Company. The Canadian Committee in Winnipeg and the Board in London favoured a more aggressive strategy and wanted to see more radical changes implemented. Parsons was very much a hands-on type of man who thought little of the retail strategies his colleagues insisted should be adopted.
While the Canadian Committee wanted to reduce the number of posts in the Arctic, and adopt modern retail merchandising and other techniques, Parsons saw no reason for this. He clung to a management model which accepted that the Fur Trade Commissioner wielded an almost autocratic rule, a model seriously at odds with a changing reality. Instead, he believed that nothing really needed to be changed, and that to be profitable HBC need only return to the core values of the fur trade: a simple prescription of hard work combined with a product assortment that fulfilled the trappers’ basic necessities. And he made no secret of his loyalty to the men “in the field” and his distaste for a program of post closures that would relocate people and disrupt lives and careers.
It was a situation that would not be resolved, and one that Parsons could not win. Frustrated yet proud of his accomplishments Ralph Parsons retired from his position of Fur Trade Commissioner in 1940. Despite his divergence of opinion with his superiors at HBC, he left with no hard feelings and was fondly remembered by all who worked with him. Moreover, Parsons was contracted by the Company for various jobs throughout the years he still had to live. He would lend his expertise to the Eastern District office whenever it was required.
Ralph Parsons was fortunate enough to benefit from extraordinary timing. His opening of posts across the Arctic largely contributed to the establishment of permanent communities in many northern locations, and reinforced Canada’s claims of sovereignty over these territories. In a twist of irony, Parsons, a proud Newfoundlander at a time when Newfoundland was still an independent colony, made his historical contribution to the growth of Canada.