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Western Canadian fur trade sites and the iconography of public memory.

Fur trade sites such as Lower Fort Garry, Fort Langley, Fort Edmonton and Fort William attract several hundred thousand visitors every year--cumulatively far more people than will ever read scholarly or even popular histories of the fur trade or sit through a university seminar on Western Canadian history. (1) In western Canada, fur trade sites are a prominent sector of the heritage industry. They help define the image of western Canada, which is presented as developing from fur trade roots through pioneer settlement to a modem, urban, multicultural society. Fur trade sites serve as physical monuments to Canada's origins in western North America. Even those sites without tangible remains are replete with historic associations of heroic figures, dramatic events and colourful pastimes. They are portals through which the imaginative site visitor can travel back in time as one might visit another country. As such, they have become cultural icons, places to which we attach layers of belief, meaning and significance. In this article we would like to examine these notions of fur trade sites as cultural icons and explore the questions "why were such numbers of these sites selected in the first place?" and "how have they been interpreted over time?".

The answer to the first question is rooted in both the development of Canadian historiography and the evolution of government administered heritage programs. The latter question is closely tied to changing fashions in site development and programming and complex interactions between often conflicting public policy goals ranging from local economic development and community pride to in situ conservation of historic resources and public education.

The list of federal, provincial and municipal historic sites with fur trade connections in the region west of Thunder Bay is quite astonishing. It includes major interpretive sites such as Old Fort William, Lower Fort Garry, Fort Edmonton and Fort Langley, smaller (at least in terms of staffing, budget and visitors) sites such as Rocky Mountain House, York Factory, Prince of Wales' Fort, Fort St. James, Carleton House, Dunvegan, Fort George and Buckingham House, and Victoria Settlement, and literally dozens of other sites marked with a plaque or other such minimalist commemoration. This latter category of site includes a range of fur trade period locations such as Fort Chipewyan, Upper Fort Garry, Jasper House, Kootenae House, Cumberland House, Henry House, Fort Gibraltar, Fort La Reine and Fort Assiniboine to name but a few. (2)

Fur trade sites attracted the early attention of Canadian historians and the Canadian government's historic sites programme. A strong interest in recognizing these sites was one of the reasons for the creation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada In 1919. In February of that year the Secretary to the Minister of the Interior asked James B. Harkin, Commissioner of National Parks, to submit a memorandum on "the advisability of retaining all the old forts and historic monuments of the Hudson's Bay regime in Western Canada as national monuments and records." Harkin replied recommending the formation of an advisory committee to survey potential historic sites across the country and recommend ones meriting attention for their national significance. Initially the Ottawa based committee had no members from western Canada although the Quebec member, Benjamin Suite, was assigned the task of investigating the subject of "the trails and explorations of western Canada." Suite was probably drawn to the task through his interest in French explorers in the west such as LaVerendrye; nonetheless, he dealt with both French and English sides of the fur trade in a report entitled "Early Forts in the North West" presented to the department in November 1919. (3)

The historic sites program had difficulty implementing any proposals in the first years of its life, and it was especially weak In the west where no national historic sites were identified before 1923. That year the Historic Sites and Monuments Board was strengthened by the addition of James Coyne from Ontario, who inherited Suite's brief for western exploration, and F.W. Howay from British Columbia, who represented the West generally. Although Coyne and Howay consulted the historical profession across the west, these two men largely controlled the agenda and priorities for the commemoration of western Canadian sites so that, while there was broad consensus as to the significance of most of the sites they proposed, the selected sites also reflect the particular historiographical twist given them by Coyne and Howay. At Coyne and Howay's suggestion, many sites connected with the fur trade were commemorated in the 1920s and early 1930s, including Fort Rouge, Fort Garry, Fort La Reine, Wawanesa and Prince of Wales' Fort in Manitoba; Fort Livingstone and Cumberland House in Saskatchewan; Fort Edmonton, Jasper House, David Thompson, Henry House, Rocky Mountain House, and Methye Portage in Alberta; and Fort Langley, Simon Fraser and Alexander Mackenzie in British Columbia. (4)

In this period between the wars, most of these sites were considered important in the context of opening the west and the creation of Canada as a nation "from sea to sea to sea." This was the accepted historical interpretation of the fur trade's significance in the 1920s and 1930s and was epitomized by Harold Innis' comments in the conclusion to his Fur Trade in Canada, first published in 1930, to the effect that: "Canada emerged as a political entity with boundaries largely determined by the fur trade." Innis then went on to note:
   The present Dominion emerged not in spite of
   geography but because of it. The significance of the
   fur trade consisted in its determination of the
   geographic framework. (5)

These sentiments were echoed by Coyne and Howay. Coyne argued that for trade routes anticipated modern Canadian transportation routes and that the posts along these routes, both British and French, helped define modern Canada. "That Canada is British today," said Coyne at a speech unveiling the monument at the Kaminisfikwia Portage in 1929, "is largely due to the birchbark canoe." (6)

Howay was even more active in championing the national significance of fur trade sites in western Canada, including some that in retrospect seem questionable choices such as Henry House near Jasper, Alberta. This "post" was first mentioned in David Thompson's account of his travels through Athabasca Pass in 1811 and 1812 to reach his posts in the Columbia River basin. Established by William Henry at Thompson's behest, it provided some modest support for Thompson's efforts, but whether it was an operational trading post is subject to debate. Subsequent travellers through the area mention seeing uninhabited structures in the vicinity of the "house" or "camp" Thompson attributes to William Henry, and it is likely that Henry's "house" was abandoned by 1812 or 1813 when Jasper House was established on Brule Lake.

It was actually J.H. Coyne who first proposed Henry House as a National Historic Site in 1920, long before the nomination of many much more prominent fur trade sites. Coyne was apparently encouraged to suggest Henry House by Colonel Rogers, the superintendent of Jasper National Park, along with several other sites in the park. (7) Nothing was done in 1920, but after his appointment to the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board as the representative for Alberta and British Columbia, Judge Howay took up the cause of Henry House and it was designated in 1926. (8) It was officially plaqued in 1931 along the road from Jasper to Maligne Canyon, just past the east end of the Athabasaca River bridge. (9)

Both the original plaque text and Judge Howay's comments at the unveiling indicate that he saw Henry House's significance as based on its role in the development of a transportation route through the mountains to the Columbia and as the jumping off point for Thompson's exploration of the Athabasca Pass. It is also clear that Howay mistakenly believed Henry House to have been a functioning post for at least 20 years. The confusion over Henry House's history and role in fur trade operations has continued to the present day. It is still a national historic site--along with Jasper House, which was also designated a national historic site for the essentially the same reasons as Henry House. (10)

Throughout all of this activity the idea that the fur trade determined the geographic boundaries of Canada--albeit in a very rough fashion--is central, and according to this view even minor fur trade posts in western Canada, such as Henry House, could be defined as nationally significant. It also gave Coyne, Howay and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada a body of potential national historic sites in a region that otherwise did not seem very promising. Given that western and northern Canada played a limited role in constitutional developments, imperial wars, and other turning point events in the development of the Canadian nation state, the fur trade and its association with exploration and discovery was one aspect of western Canada's history that fit into mainstream notions of Canadian history at the time. (11)

In addition to meshing neatly with the kinds of nationalist historiographical concerns prevalent among Canadian historians in the inter-war years, the historic people and places of the fur trade became closely tied to an emotional rediscovery of Canada through the experience of its natural landscape. An early example of this phenomenon was J.B.Tyrrell's interest in David Thompson that had developed through Tyrell's own explorations for the Geological Survey of Canada. Tyrrell had professional reasons for being interested in Thompson, but one cannot help but notice the strong emotional pull of the landscape for Tyrrell, which drew him into a quasi-spiritual connection with Thompson. So he writes in his preface to his edition of David Thompson's Narrative brought out by the Champlain Society in 1916:

Between the years 1883 and 1898, while engaged on the staff of the Geological Survey of Canada, it fell to my lot to carry on explorations in canoes, on horseback, or on foot, over many of the routes which had been surveyed and explored by David Thompson a century before, to survey the rivers that he had surveyed, to measure the portages on which he had walked, to cross the plains and mountains on the trails which he had travelled, to camp on his old camping grounds, and to take astronomical observations on the same places where he had taken them. (12)

Tyrrell, then, was led to the narratives of Hearne and Thompson from his experience of an historical landscape.

Many more people, however, reverse the process and are led to historical landscapes from the texts of fur trade journals--which are often remarkably evocative and which form a large part of the publication programs of the Champlain Society and Hudson's Bay Record Society. For example, an interest in wilderness travel and a desire to recapture a sense of the past encouraged Ernest Voorhis to investigate the sites of old fur trade posts; an activity he continued while employed as a researcher for the Department of the Interior in the 1920s and which culminated in his massive compendium, "Historic Forts and Trading: Posts of the French Regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies". (13)

In a sense, published narratives allow readers to vicariously experience sites in an imaginative landscape. It is then but a small step from reading about places such as Tyrrell describes to wanting to visit them oneself. Indeed, the identification and commemoration of historic sites presumes that there is value in having people visit these sites and know what it is they are seeing. It also presumes some public interest in making these sites accessible, and HSMBC designations of fur trade sites prior to 1950 reflect this. In fact, in a number of cases offering a publicly accessible plaque location took precedence over marking the actual site being commemorated. For example, the plaque for Methye Portage was placed at Fort McMurray, not the portage itself, which remains largely inaccessible, and the plaque for Jasper House was purposely placed on the highway rather than at the actual site of Jasper House II. (14)

The fur trade provided other qualities besides a connection with landscape that helped make it appealing to the early Historic Sites and Monuments Board and to the Canadian public. It had heroic figures such as Samuel Heame, Alexander Mackenzie and David Thompson and it left ruins in a landscape that otherwise did not have many physical historic remains. (15) It was the "heroic" stature of men like Heame and Thompson, as much as the physical remains at places associated with these men, which led to the early identification of Rocky Mountain House and Prince of Wales' Fort as national historic sites. J.B.Tyrrell, who had done much to establish both Hearne's and Thompson's historical reputation, promoted the recognition of both sites. For example, while in Ottawa in 1920 to testify before the Senate Committee investigating the possibility of establishing Churchill as a railway terminus and port, Tyrrell dropped in to see the official responsible for historic sites and inquired about the possibility of preserving the ruins of Prince of Wales' Fort. In the 1920s, the Board recognized the fort as being of national significance. The Parks Branch of the Dept. of the Interior (now Parks Canada) took responsibility for its preservation, and when a large workforce became available with the completion of the railroad into Churchill, the men began reconstruction of the fort in the 1930s. Thus, Prince of Wales' Fort became the first historic site in the system to involve the protection of ruins as opposed to mere commemoration by a calm and plaque. (16)

The history of the selection of these places as historic sites demonstrates that there are other objectives and forces at work in defining these sites as nationally significant as historic places than simply their relationship to a trade in furs. A significant aspect of commemorated fur trade sites in western Canada is that they have always represented a multiplicity of themes. In addition to their obvious role in representing a broad and often stereotypical narrative of fur trade development (17), these early commemorations of fur trade sites in western Canada were used to represent broad themes such as the winning of the West, Canadian territorial expansion, the decline of aboriginal populations and cultures, and the development of settlement and a regional economy based on the production of staple products.

This tendency to infuse the fur trade with larger "national" consequences became even stronger when site interpretation expanded beyond simple historic markers. At some major sites such as Lower Fort Garry and Fort Langley these other themes have sometimes overshadowed any direct association with the fur trade as an economic enterprise--perhaps in part because neither site played a particularly central role in the fur trade as a business. (18) Instead both of these sites came to be associated as much with the beginnings of Euro-Canadian settlement in their areas as with the trade in furs, although using fur trade sites to commemorate settlement creates some interesting problems. Many fur trade centres were often either situated well north of early settlement, as at Churchill and York Factory, or if they did coincide with settlements such as at Winnipeg, Edmonton or Victoria, the posts were usually obliterated or severely compromised by subsequent urban development. (19) What Fort Langley and Lower Fort Garry have in common, then, is that both are located near but not within large urban centres. They retained some historic buildings and their location made them easily accessible to visitors, but their centrality to fur trade history is less obvious. As a result, it was the locale of these places rather than their significance to fur trade history that governed the development of programs of first person animation, building restoration and reconstruction, exhibits and interpretive centres at these sites in the 1950s and 1960s.

In addition to representing general pioneering themes associated with the early occupation of the land by Euro-Canadians, many fur trade sites attracted attention from heritage agencies because they often are associated with surviving physical resources: log buildings, bastions and palisades, and obvious archaeological remains such as cellar depressions and chimneys. Rocky Mountain House, Lower Fort Garry and Fort Langley all seemed important in a regional context because they represented the oldest surviving buildings or archaeological "ruins" in the area. As relics, these places combined a certain picturesque appeal for both the public and heritage buffs with an opportunity to use actual places to illustrate a plethora of historical abstractions. In cases where settlement grew up around these remains, the relics became valued as remnants of a pioneer past despite the lack of obvious links between the fur trade and subsequent settlement in many cases. (20)

It was in this context that F.W. Howay, a member of the HSMBC and British Columbia's most prominent historian in the 1920s, proposed Fort Langley as a national historic site. According to Howay, Fort Langley was one of the two most significant historic sites in the province, the other being Nootka Sound where Cook landed. Fort Langley was important to Howay in part because of its associations with the fur trade, partly because of one old building that remained on the site, but mostly because it was from here that the mainland province was called into being by proclamation in 1858 and it was the fort that served very briefly as the mainland colony's first capital. (21) Fort Langley was presented then as the birthplace of the province. Other fur trade sites in British Columbia with no less intrinsic significance as fur trade sites and better-preserved extant resources were ignored by Howay. For example, Fort St. James represented a much better collection of fur trade era structures than Fort Langley, as well as being an important regional trade centre. Despite these qualities, it was not recognized as a national historic site until 1946, over 20 years after the commemoration of Fort Langley.

Similarly, Lower Fort Garry, later to become the preeminent fur trade site in the national historic parks system, was not designated originally for its association with the fur trade at all. Instead it was seen as nationally significant because it was the place where Treaty I was signed, an event seen as opening the west to settlement. The first plaque erected here in 1928 confined itself to discussing this treaty. It was not until the 1960s that the site began to assume broader associations and these associations had as much or more to do with the founding of the province and the history of the Red River settlement as the conduct of the fur trade. (22)

The tendency to present western fur trade sites as iconic examples of a broadly defined western Canadian historical development became more and more obvious as the sophistication of site interpretation increased. While initially only commemorated by means of a bronze plaque, places like Fort Langley, Rocky Mountain House and Lower Fort Garry were developed by Parks Canada in the 1960s and 1970s as operating sites or, in the parlance of the day, national historic parks. The idea of a historic park as we know it, that is a group of restored and or reconstructed buildings with period displays and costumed guides, is really a postwar phenomenon in Canada. To be sure, other historic parks such as Fort Anne in Nova Scotia had been open since the 1920s and even Prince of Wales's Fort had been partly restored before the war, but none of these sites attempted to recreate life as it may have been lived at these sites. The program of what was called "living history museums" was borrowed from Colonial Williamsburg (which had borrowed it in turn from open-air and folk museums in Europe) and became popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Living history effectively demanded reconstruction of the interiors of historic buildings, then furnishing rooms with replicas or authentic period pieces based as much as possible on documentary evidence of what the actual room may have looked like. In many respects, then, historic buildings became stage sets and a key element in these displays was something called first person animation: guides would appear as part of the display, wearing costumes and assuming roles of people who were known to have used the room in the historic period. (23)

Believing strongly in the value and effectiveness of living history museums, the Canadian government in the late 1950's sought, as a matter of policy, to establish at least one of these in each province. The early dominance of fur trade sites in HSMBC designations in western Canada meant fur trade sites also initially dominated the sites selected for development as historic parks in the region as well.

Fort Langley was an early candidate for this treatment because of the lobbying of a committee of the Fort Langley Board of Trade formed "to promote the erection of buildings on the site of the old Fort Langley so that the said Fort will be reconstructed as near as possible in the manner in which it appeared in the year 1858." The intention of this project was to commemorate the upcoming provincial centenary and the provincial government subsequently entered into an agreement with its federal counterpart to implement the committee's proposal. Although officially opened in 1958, the first phase of reconstruction was not completed until the following year when the Big House, or officers' quarters, was finished along with part of the palisade. This new construction also incorporated a largely rebuilt sales shop, which is the only "authentic" period structure at the site. During the ensuing decade a blacksmith shop and a generic building interpreted as a cooperage were constructed. The interiors of all these building were all furnished with period replicas and some limited artefacts, while costumed guides gave historical accounts and explanations appropriate to the function of each of the buildings. (24)

Lower Fort Garry was chosen to be Manitoba's main national historic park. Run for many years as a country club, it was developed in the 1960s into a major cultural attraction. Like Fort Langley, it was associated with the early development of the province and was the site of Manitoba's first penitentiary and lunatic asylum. Unlike Fort Langley, here most of the original buildings, as well as the stone walls, were largely intact although the interiors had been considerably altered since the fur trade era. During the 1960s and 1970s, research and development focused on reconstructing a number of interiors and costumed guides took the parts of fur trade people who may have inhabited the site. (25)

Although both Fort Langley and Lower Fort Garry undertook to interpret life at a fur trade post, this goal was interwoven with other themes thought to be important at these sites and which in many respects overshadowed fur trade themes. Both sites became closely associated with early settlement or pioneer life, so much so that programming at both of these sites was often more typical of pioneer villages than the fur trade. Activities such as baking bread, spinning wool, making horseshoes or barrels, and sawing timbers characterize pioneer villages, and constituted much of the original historical activity presented at Lower Fort Garry and Fort Langley. It may also be noted that all of these things have come to evoke and represent the past to modern visitors, and they tend to confirm rather than challenge conventional perceptions of life in earlier times. Also typical of pioneer villages, these sites were--and in most cases still are--clean, tidy, and inhabited largely by polite young men and women. In part this is deliberate, as both places consciously strive to interpret the birth of their respective provinces, in part it is accidental, a by-product of interpretive programs that rely on summertime student labour.

Although Fort Langley and Lower Fort Garry strove to present period animation, with costumed interpreters assuming the roles of historical figures, the objectives of running what is essentially an outdoor museum could sometimes constrain or even conflict with those of living history. For example, site buildings were and are carefully furnished with replica or even authentic antiques. If the visitors are to be allowed to tour the interiors of one of these restored buildings in a natural way--that is without seeing museum type barriers--then site staff have to be stationed to ensure that one of the visitors does not literally make off with the silverware. Since the numbers of guides are usually limited and the numbers of restored buildings are many, this often means that a single costumed guide is stationed in each building with little opportunity to interact with other characters in a natural way. It can also mean that some rooms or buildings are closed on occasion or that exhibit cases or roped off areas have to be introduced in some rooms. This is not an insuperable problem and most site visitors are quite used to the idea of having limited access to rooms and artefacts, but solitary guides interacting with visitors rather than other historical characters while keeping a careful eye on the "stage props' is a far cry from the stated goals of "first person" animation.

In Alberta, Rocky Mountain House was selected to be the major interpreted national historic site in the province, outside of the national parks. Although it had few surviving period resources--the main attraction was the remains of chimneys thought originally to be associated with David Thompson, but later shown to be the last vestiges of the final post on the Rocky Mountain House site (26)--Rocky Mountain House was also intended to be presented to the visiting public through a combination of a museum-style exhibit in a Visitor Reception Centre and first and third person animation programs offered on site. Initially designated as a national historic site in 1931, it was not until the late 1960s that plans were put in place to develop Rocky Mountain House as a historic park. (27) Fort St. James in British Columbia was acquired and developed as a historic park at roughly the same time, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s programming was also expanded at other fur trade sites such as Prince of Wales' Fort at Churchill, although first person animation was never seriously pursued as an interpretive strategy there. (28)

Following Parks Canada's lead, the late 1960s and early 1970s were also marked by an upsurge of interest in museum and historic site development on the part of municipal and provincial heritage agencies. Canada's Centennial in 1967, Manitoba's Centennial in 1970, and the 75th anniversary celebrations in Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1980 prompted much of this activity. (29) Alberta, in particular, embarked upon an ambitious program of developing museums and historic sites after 1980 that led to the opening of Fort George and Buckingham House, Victoria Settlement, and Dunvegan as interpreted fur trade sites in the 1980s and early 1990s to complement the sites operated by Parks Canada.

At much the same time as all of this new site development was taking place, scholarly interpretations of the significance of the fur trade began to change. In particular, academic research began to focus more on fur trade "social history" and the idea that the fur trade was not just a commercial undertaking but a "way of life" as well. Paralleling this change in emphasis was a growing interest in the place of women and families in the fur trade exemplified by the work of Jennifer Brown and Sylvia Van Kirk. The third major area of new scholarly research was a growing interest in the role of Aboriginal peoples in the fur trade. (30) It took roughly a decade for these new approaches to fur trade history to make much impact on historic site interpretation. In time though, heritage agencies and site staff realized the potential of incorporating material on women, families, Aboriginal peoples, along with "social" history concerns such as diet, clothing, work and leisure patterns, and material culture into site exhibits and programs. The result has been largely beneficial, and few would argue that broadening the story told by fur trade sites beyond discussing trade details such as the value of a made beaver, the price of tea in Red River and presenting a rather undifferentiated version of fur trade pioneer life has not been a very good thing. For example, the recent interest in using fur trade sites to interpret Aboriginal cultures and history offers a practical solution to several problems and has been used effectively to re-intimate some rather stale site presentations while interesting visitors in a new side of fur trade history. Historic "Indian" villages are hard to find in western Canada, mad directing tourists towards sacred sites such as medicine wheels and buffalo jumps and pounds can be fraught with practical, philosophical and political problems. (31)

Nevertheless, changes in site programming and exhibits over the last two decades have raised some new issues. There is now a genuine enthusiasm for bringing Aboriginal people "out of the background," as one book puts it, (32) at fur trade sites, but some of this effort can be misleading and even ahistorical on occasion. For example, Lower Fort Garry did serve some Ojibwe/Saulteaux families living at St. Peter's and in the Interlake but this was not a major part of post operations. Portraying Aboriginal women as living in tipis outside the post walls and having them cook bannock and other country foods for visitors is not incorrect, but it does divert attention from another aspect of Aboriginal and women's history at this post. Women of mixed Aboriginal and European ancestry did work at Lower Fort Garry, but most would probably have been uncomfortable living in tipis or subsisting like the local Saulteaux. They were the wives and children of men who worked at the post or who lived on nearby farms. They washed officers' clothing and the post linen, or worked for daily wages cleaning, gardening, and cooking for the post, and bannock at Lower Fort Garry was probably secondary to bread and biscuit as a foodstuff for post residents. (33)

Many fur trade sites including Lower Fort Garry, Fort Edmonton, Rocky Mountain House and Fort George/ Buckingham House have now added tipis outside the post walls as a way of reminding site visitors that the fur trade was not just a male activity or a Euro-Canadian enterprise, and this is an important point to make. However, it also subtly suggests a crude social and spatial dichotomy in fur trade relations with Euro-Canadian traders inside the post and Aboriginal peoples--often women--outside the palisades. Few posts were so clearly differentiated and at Lower Fort Garry, in particular, there is a chance to introduce visitors to a more challenging historical proposition. Because both Aboriginal men and women worked inside the post, and outside the post a high proportion of the local farming community of St. Andrew's was also Aboriginal, these people were fur trade "pioneers" with a fascinating and ironic twist. They were less precursors of an emerging agricultural economy than the inheritors of a long tradition of a multilingual, multicultural, ever-evolving fur trade community. They were not pioneers heralding the new so much as a group of people about to be swamped by a tide of new immigration. The result was what Sylvia Van Kirk has described, with real sadness, as the "end of fur trade society." (34) The story of the men and women who lived and worked at Lower Fort Garry is marked as much by pathos as any foreshadowing of western Canada's agricultural future as the "opening of the West" meant the "closing of the North West."

Similarly, there is value in acknowledging that the fur trade was a "partnership" between Euro-Canadian and Aboriginal traders and a larger group of Aboriginal primary producers, and that the trade often produced families and marital partnerships--the much discussed "many tender ties" of fur trade society. In emphasizing this, however, there is also some danger of losing sight of some recent historiography on both the fur trade itself and Aboriginal history. For generations historians placed the fur trade at the centre of early western Canadian history and used it to explain everything from population movements, warfare and resource depletion to cultural change and dislocation. In recent years more and more historians and anthropologists are questioning this view, which as Jennifer Brown has noted is based on the "assumption that all the Indians were deeply immersed In the fur trade." (35) Some were; many were not. The story of how, where and to what extent different individuals and groups interacted with fur traders and fur trade companies is incredibly complex. As Jennifer Brown goes on to note, Aboriginal history is not just as aspect of fur trade history, but In many ways something quite distinct from fur trade history. (36)

What is worrisome is a sense that heritage agencies may be encouraged to feel casting a few Aboriginal wives and trappers in animation programs and installing some interpretative panels that discuss native involvement in the fur trade has somehow covered "Aboriginal history." Encouraging visitors to observe native cultures and experiences primarily through the prism of the fur trade ignores most of the richness and diversity of those cultures and experiences. It also may mean that heritage agencies will not put the kind of effort into identifying, protecting and interpreting Aboriginal sites other than those associated with the fur trade that they probably should.

Equally worrisome is the constant reiteration of the idea that the fur trade was a "partnership." It was in many respects, and presenting the fur trade in this light has been very useful in undermining stereotypes of avaricious traders and victimized Aboriginal people. In emphasizing the agency of Aboriginal men and women in their responses to contact with Euro-Canadian traders, first historians and then historic sites through their interpretive programming have made the point that Aboriginal peoples were actively involved in shaping the conduct of the trade and that they made very practical and hard-headed decisions about producing furs and provisions, purchasing goods, even marrying fur traders. As Sarah Carter and others have observed, however, agency can be a two-edged concept. It can at some point merge into "colonialist alibi" and be used "to soften, and at times deny, the impact of colonialism, and thus implicitly to absolve its perpetrators." (37)

A constraint felt by many Interpreters at historic sites is the consciousness that they are contributing to a heritage attraction, that their role is to entertain as much as to educate. Sites developed as attractions are going to be wary about telling too many depressing stories. They want to be fun. And by the same token they are disinclined to provide explanations that seem difficult to all but professional historians. The idea of 'multiple voices' that history can include various conflicting points of view, while attractive to public historians, is extremely challenging to implement in an entertaining manner that is understandable to the public. It is often suggested that the "past is a foreign country," and not surprisingly heritage agencies have little desire to make their visitor/history tourists uncomfortable In those foreign lands, especially if those visitors have to come up with an admission fee for the privilege.

Places selected to commemorate the fur trade in western Canada are a prime example of how historic sites can function as cultural "icons." As icons, they have always been used to represent far more than just the industry, individuals or events that brought them into existence. They provide physical and graphic depictions of our past and are particularly powerful because they seem "real." (38) When early fur trade sites were used to portray the fur trade as a link in the great Canadian chain of being (the colony to nation model of Canadian historiography), or suggest some crude version of a Canadian "Manifest Destiny," this was as significant as the sites themselves. In recent years, using these sites to provide better "coverage" of Aboriginal, women's, multicultural and environmental history is no less significant. As a result any close examination of historic sites tells us almost as much about ourselves as the past they seek to preserve and interpret. They too are cultural artefacts like the exhibitry they house and interpret, and as such they reflect their own institutional history and the policies and politics that shaped their selection and development.
National Historic Site Commemorations in Western Canada
to 31 March 1950 (39)


Fort Douglas                    Winnipeg             1925
Forts Rouge, Garry and
  Gibraltar                     Winnipeg             1925
Fort La Reine                   Portage La Prairie   1928
Indian Treaty No. 1             Lower Fort Garry     1928
Early Fur Trade                 Wawanesa             1930
Port Churchill                  Churchill            1931
Fort Prince of Wales            Churchill            1931
Henry Kelsey                    The Pas              1935
Roseau Route                    Letellier            1936
Norway House                    Norway House         1937
Fort Maurepas                   Fort Alexander       1937
Samuel Hearne                   Churchill            1938
Thomas Simpson                  Winnipeg             1939
Dawson Road                     Ste. Anne            1939
Hon. John Norquay               Winnipeg             1947
Fort Dufferin                   near Emerson         1948
Dr Charles William Gordon
  (Ralph Connor)                Winnipeg             1949
First Legislature of Manitoba   Winnipeg             1949
LeVerendrye's Journey to the
  Mandans                       Morden               1949


Batoche                         Batoche              1924
Battle of Cut Knife Hill        near Cut Knife       1924
Fort Livingstone                near Pelly           1924
Battleford                      North Battleford     1924
Fort Walsh                      near Merry Flat      1926
Indian Treaty No. 6             near Carlton         1930
Battle of Fish Creek            near Fish Creek      1935
Cumberland House                Cumberland Lake      1938


Frog Lake Massacre              near Frog Lake       1924
Fort Calgary                    Calgary              1925
Fort Macleod                    Macleod              1926
Forts Edmonton and Augustus     near Edmonton        1926
Jasper House                    Jasper Park          1927
Indian Treaty No. 7             near Cluny           1927
First Coal Mine in Alberta      Lethbridge           1928
Fort Fork                       near Peace River     1929
David Thompson                  Jasper Park          1930
Henry House                     Jasper Park          1930
Rocky Mountain House            Rocky Mountain
                                  House              1931
General Sh'ange's Column        Edmonton             1932
Father Lacombe and Reverend
  McDougall                     Wetaskiwin           1935
Methye Portage                  Fort McMurray        1937
Fort Assiniboine                near Barrhead        1938
Fort Chipewyan                  Fort Chipewyan       1939
Overland Immigration of 1862    Jasper               1939
Louise Crummy McKinney          Claresholm           1947
Chief Crowfoot                  near Gleichen        1948
Saving of the Buffalo           Elk Island Park      1949

British Columbia

Fort Langley                    Langley Station      1924
Nootka Sound                    Friendly Cove        1924
Sir Alexander Mackenzie         Prince George        1924
Fort Yale                       Yale                 1924
Prospect Point (The S.S.
  Beaver)                       Vancouver            1924
Gonzales Hill                   Victoria             1925
Fort Kamloops                   Kamloops             1925
Sir Alexander Mackenzie         Bella Coola          1926
First Coal Mine in British
  Columbia                      Nanaimo              1927
Fort Hope                       Hope                 1927
New Westminster                 New Westminster      1927
Sir George Simpson              Kootenay Park        1928
Cariboo Gold Fields             Barkerville          1928
Last Spanish Exploration        Vancouver            1929
Fort Steele (North West
  Mounted Police)               Fort Steele          1929
Pacific Cable                   Bamfield             1930
Simon Fraser                    Musquam              1930
Collins Overland Telegraph      Quesnel              1931
Fort Alexandria                 near Alexandria      1935
Great Fraser Midden             Vancouver            1937
Completion of the Canadian
  Pacific Railway               Port Moody            938
Kootenae House                  near Invermere       1938
Sir Richard McBride             New Westminster      1941
Frederic William Howay          New Westminster      1946
The Oregon Treaty of 1846       near Douglas         1947
Amor de Cosmos                  Victoria             1948
Okanagan Brigade Trail          Westbank             1949

Yukon Territory

Yukon Gold Discovery            Dawson City          1931


(1.) The impact of historic sites on popular perceptions of Canadian history is worth study in its own right. Visitation figures and visitor surveys conducted by heritage organizations suggest that sites reach a large public audience and that these sites are very effective both in convincing visitors that they have learned something and that they enjoyed their visit. Alberta Community Development, for example, has been conducting visitor surveys at its historic sites, museums and interpretive centers for several years. The most recent survey figures for 2002 indicate that overall a healthy 97.7% of visitors surveyed rated their satisfaction with their visit as "good" or "excellent" and 89% indicated that the knowledge they gained about Alberta's history from their visit was "good" or "excellent". See Infact Research and Consulting, "Heritage Facilities Visitor Survey 2002 Tabulations I: Division Total, Historic Sites Service Totals and Site Totals" (Edmonton: Cultural Facilities & Historical Resources Division, Alberta Community Development, December 2002) esp. p. 32. Many fur trade historic sites attract limited numbers of visitors because of their remote locations, York Factory for example, but Fort Edmonton Parkand Old Fort William both attract 100,000 visitors or more a year according to site materials. The most easily accessible visitor figures for national historic sites in print and on the Internet ( can be found in "State of the Parks 1997 Report." According to the figures listed in this report in Appendix 7: Parks Canada Attendance, Lower Fort Garry and Fort Langley attracted an average of over 60,000 and 70,000 visitors respectively from 1993 to 1997. There are also many smaller fur trade sites across western Canada that consistently attract between 5,000 and 25,000 visitors a year.

(2.) Some sense of the number and variety of these sites can be gained by consulting Barbara Huck, Exploring the Fur Trade Routes of North America: discover the highways that opened a continent (Winnipeg: Heartland, 2002). Although very thorough, the list of sites mentioned in this book is not comprehensive, particularly in the area of locally designated and commemorated sites.

(3.) The early history of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada is summarized in C.J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past: The Making of Canada's National Historic Parks and Sites (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1990) esp. pp. 32-60.

(4.) The plaque for Methye Portage was located at Fort McMurray in Alberta, although the actual portage is located in Saskatchewan. In the years prior to 1950, sites with fur trade associations dominated Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) commemorations in Manitoba and Alberta, and were a major component of commemorationsin Saskatchewan and British Columbia. in total the HSMBC made 79 designations in these provinces and in the Yukon prior to 1950--of this number 34 or slightly under half of all designations were of fur trade posts, events in the fur trade, or individuals active in the fur trade. The dominance of fur trade designations in Manitoba and Alberta is particularly striking in the pre-1950 period. See Ibid., 61-90 and Appendix One to this paper.

Since 1950, the HSMBC has not abandoned designating fur trade related sites, individuals or events, although these designations are less common. Provincial and local commemorations, however, have taken up some of the slack, in Alberta, for example, the City of Edmonton made reconstruction of Fort Edmonton a centrepiece of its heritage program, and the province of Alberta operates Dunvegan, Fort George and Buckingham House, and Victoria Settlement as interpreted sites with a fur trade focus.

(5.) Harold A. Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970) 393.

(6.) Taylor, Negotiating the Past, 51.

(7.) National Archives of Canada: RG 84, series A-2-a, vol. 1374, microfilm reel T-14143, file "Historic Sites Western Canada" part 1, 1916-1920, James H. Coyne to Ernest A. Cruikshank, Chilliwack, 24 September 1920.

(8.) See Parks Canada, Record of National Historic Site Designation, Reference File for Henry House.

(9.) The choice of site suggests the Board was basing its assessment of the general location of Henry House on David Thompson's survey readings.

(10.) The original plaque text refers to Henry House as operating for about twenty years as an "important point" in the Athabasca Pass transportation system: "Here began the difficult land passage across the Rocky Mountains." In his remarks at the travelling, as reported in a newspaper clipping, Howay described Henry House as a small post, but one that played "a gigantic part in the development of Canada's transportation system. It was one of the main supports of the first line of transportation, the fur brigades, since replaced by the transcontinental line of the Canadian national railways, which follows the same route up the valley." Parks Canada, Calgary Regional Record Centre, file C8400/548, "Henry House, Jasper National Park."

Howay's interest in Henry House may also be tied to a certain tendency by Board members "to emphasize the history of their own neighhourhoods," as C. J. Taylor has put it. Howay was very interested in commemorating sites and events that related to British Columbia's place in Canadian history. Although located in Alberta, Henry House's presumed significance was based on its role in integrating parts of what would become British Columbia into a transcontinental fur trade system. This reflects a common view in Innis and other early fur trade historians that Canada's political boundaries were shaped by the for trade. See C. J. Taylor, Negotiating the Past, pp. 88

(11.) Fur trade sites, events and personalities could be invoked to supper virtually all the major approaches to Canadian history in the pre-1980 period as outlined by J.M.S. Careless. The fur trade was easily integrated as a significant factor in Canadian history by proponents of the "Britannic," "Political Nationhood," "Frontierist/ Environmentalist" and "Laurentian/Metropolitan" schools of historiography. See J.M.S. Careless, "Frontierism, Metropolitanism and Canadian History" in Carl Berger (ed.), Approaches to Canadian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974) pp. 63-83. The fur trade also suited analysis under A.R.M Lower's notion of a French/ British antithesis as the driving force of Canadian history. See A.R.M. Lower, "Two Ways of Life: The Primary Antithesis of Canadian History" in Ibid. pp. 15-28. For example, Suite's early summary report for the HSMBC, mentioned above, reflects this "antithesis."

(12.) J.B. Tyrrell (ed.), David Thompson" s Narrative of His Explorations in Western America, (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1916), xviii-xix.

(13.) Ernest Voorhis, "Historic Forts and Trading Posts of the French Regime and of the English Fur Trading Companies", (Ottawa: Department of Interior, 1930). A.S. Morton, Harold Innis, and many other historians of the period took considerable interest in actually trying to identify and visit the locations of the places they wrote about, and the popularity of editions of fur trade journals, correspondence and other documents exemplified by the Champlain and Hudson's Bay Record Society volumes also speaks to this interest in making a more direct, personal connection to "history."

(14.) It is possible to visit the site of the second Jasper House, although it is located in a part of the park few visit. The original site of Jasper House has never been positively identified so visiting it is out of the question. At the time the Jasper House plaque was first placed, surviving correspondence clearly indicates that staff chose the location to ensure maximum visibility. See National Historic Parks and Sites--General, Jasper House, Jasper, Alberta HS10-20, July 1927-August 1985, file number C8400/580. Memorandum for File E.1, J.M. Wardle, Chief Engineer, National Parks of Canada, Banff, Alberta, 16 August, 1927, in addition to Harkin, Mitchell and Wardle, the Deputy Minister of Public Works and other departmental officials were present when the new site was chosen.

(15.) Unlike parts of central Canada and the Maritimes, western and northern Canada had relatively few surviving structures that predated even 1900. There were of course Aboriginal archaeological sites of great antiquity, but the board rarely designated "prehistoric" sites prior to the 1960s when the National Parks Branch began to hire archaeologists as regular staff. See Taylor, Negotiating the Past, 184.

(16.) Taylor, Negotiating the Past, 59. In Canada, national designation carries no legal protection of a site except for those owned operated by the government or subject to federal legislation, such as railway stations and federal buildings. Fortunately Prince of Wales' Fort was on federal land. Over time preservation programs have become an increasingly important aspect of the work of heritage agencies, although in most cases these programs are based on provincial or municipal legislation and bylaws. In a sense, Prince of Wales' Fort foreshadows the growing importance of preservation programs within the historic site movement in Canada after the 1960s.

(17.) Some of the themes no site can seemingly ignore include some or all of the following: the fur trade as imperial rivalry; the fur trade as motive for exploration; the fur trade as competition between rival companies/corporate philosophies/transportation routes and technologies; the fur trade as precursor to Euro-Canadian settlement, and the decline and presumed fall of the fur trade as part of the "modernization" of Canada. The fur trade may also join business and political history as the last refuge of "great man" explanations of history. The tendency to either blame or credit George Simpson for virtually everything that happened in the fur trade from 1821 to 1860 is perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this tendency.

(18.) Lower Fort Garry was always a relatively small post with limited operations, especially in comparison with the much larger Upper Fort Garry, which was the real fur trade center in the Red River Settlement. The claims for Fort Langley are better as it did act as a depot and administrative center for the Hudson's Bay Company's operations on the Pacific coast. In the late 1820s and 30s it produced a fair volume of furs. Returns of beaver peaked in 1833 at just over 2800 pelts, but average returns were much lower and were frequently less than 1000 pelts. This volume of trade would be appreciably less than the average number of beaver pelts produced at a post such as Dunvegan during the same period. Put another way, Fort Langley's production of beaver peltsin 1827/28 was 1129 while tiny Jasper House prod uced 899. In later years, Fort Langley emerged as a significant supplier of salmon and agricultural products for the fur trade, but once again this was important but hardly a nationally significant contribution to trade operations. Fur returns for Fort Langley are summarized in Mary Cullen, The History of Fort Langley, 1827-1896 (Ottawa: National Historic Parks and Sites, 1979) Occasional Paper #20.

(19.) The use of a "historic site"--albeit a created one--to forge an association between a fur trade post and subsequent urban development is perhaps most clear with Fort Edmonton Park, which incorporates both a reconstructed fur trade post and an ever-growing collection of historic buildings organized to depict Edmonton's history at specific periods (1885, 1905 and 1920). The reconstructed post is clearly the centrepiece of the heritage park development, and it is physically placed in close association with much later structures in a kind of telescoping of historical chronology that meets interpretive programming goals but is clearly anachronistic. A good overview of the park development, including a map showing the physical layout of the park, can be found at

(20.) The small settlements that grew up around places such as Upper Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton did eventually grow into urban centers, but at Rocky Mountain House, Jasper House and many other sites there was a significant gap of years between the closing of the fur trade post and the beginnings of significant new settlement. Interestingly, in several instances where there were only limited archaeological remains of sites as in the case of Edmonton and Thunder Bay, posts have been reconstructed in new locations to stand for the now vanished post that was the presumed foundation of the city.

(21.) Ibid., 109 and 146.

(22.) The process of shifting the emphasis of interpretation at Lower Fort Garry from Treaty 1 to the fur trade was clearly driven by the desire to use Lower Fort Garry as a setting for a sophisticated "first person" animation program using costumed guides playing the role of real historical personages associated with the site. A single event such as the signing of a treaty, while almost certainly more nationally significant than the post's limited role as a fur trade site, had limited potential as a basis for site programming.

(23.) One of the best expositions of the theory and practise of "living history" may be found in Jay Anderson, Time Machines: Tim World of Living History, (Nashville, The American Association for State and Local History, 1984). "First" person animation has long been treated as the pinnacle of interpretive programming. It is costly in every sense of the term from labour costs to the complexity and scope of the historical and curatorial research needed to support such programming. As a result, many sites have in recent years moved to the less demanding style of "third" person animation--costumed guides who do not attempt to portray actual historical characters and who can switch roles from tour guide in period dress to historical character as circumstances and visitor questions require. That said, first person animation programs can be extraordinarily effective in imparting information. That some of this information may be misleading or very debateable is a separate issue.

(24.) Taylor, Negotiating the Past, 145-46. The history of the development of Fort Langley is also studied in considerable detail in Jamie Morton, Fort Langley: A Site History 1886-1986, (Ottawa: Environment Canada, Canadian Parks Service, 1986) Microfiche Report Series #329.

(25.) A study of the development of Lower Fort Garry as an historic site has been written by Robert Courts, An Operational History of Lower Fort Garry 1911-1992, (Ottawa: Environment Canada, Canadian Parks Service, 1993). The various Manuscript and Microfiche Reports, Occasional Papers and Research BuLletins published by the Canadian Parks Service on Lower Fort Garry give some sense of the evolution of this site. One might, for example, compare George Ingram's structural histories or Dale Miquelon's history of the "Big House" with more recent studies by Carol Livermore or Robert Coutts. See also Graham Macdonald, A Good Solid Comfortable Establishment: An Illustrated History of Lower Fort Garry (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1992).

(26.) Rocky Mountain House created a different set of presentation issues from Lower Fort Garry and Fort Langley. It is primarily an archaeological site that incorporates the original 1799 Hudson's Bay Company post (Actun House), a 1799 North West Company post (Rocky Mountain House), and several versions of the Hudson's Bay Company's Rocky Mountain House occupied between 1821 and 1875. The site also includes a cemetery, Aboriginal campsites and other archaeological remains, including other possible posts. In addition to this confusing sequence of post locations, the current historic site has added a replica fort, a Visitor Reception Centre, self-guided trails, a buffalo paddock and other interpretive resources.

(27.) Taylor, Negotiating the Past, 188.

(28.) It is interesting to note that most of these sites were developed based on much earlier designations that had consisted only of historic plaques. There are relatively few major historic parks acquired and developed since the mid-1960s specifically because they lend themselves to interpretive programming. In many cases, these new more elaborate historic parks were based on previous designations-many dating back decades--or they are based on reconstructions or relocated historic buildings.

(29.) New provincial museums were created in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in this period. Fort Edmonton Park was begun, and Eric Harvey's donation that forms the basis of the Glenbow Museum and Archives dates from 1966. Many smaller community museums and historic sites also date from this very significant period for Canada's heritage movement.

(30.) For a recent summary of changing trends in fur trade historiography see Michael Payne, "Fur Trade Historiography Past Conditions, Present Circumstances and a Hint of Future Prospects" in Theodore Binnema, Gerhard Ens and R.C. MacLeod (eds.), From Rupert's Land to Canada (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 20010 pp. 3-22.

(31.) Without belabouring the point, many Aboriginal communities prefer that sites of deep spiritual and community significance are not turned into tourist attractions. Similarly most archaeological heritage programs like to keep exact locations of sites secret to discourage vandalism, pot-hunting, and even use by well-meaning non-Aboriginal individuals. Of course many sites are open to the public and there are guidebooks aimed at audiences Interested in visiting certain specific sites. Few of these, aside from sites such as Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and Wanuskewin, rival the large interpreted fur trade sites in terms of development and programming. A good example of a guidebook to publicly accessible archaeological sites is Barbara Huck and Doug Whiteway, In Search of Ancient Alberta (Winnipeg: Heartland Publications, 1998).

(32.) Kenneth Coates and Robin Fisher, Out of the Background: Readings on Canadian Native History (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman, 1988).

(33.) Lower Fort Garry actually had a bakehouse and several ovens, which were used to produce bread for post consumption and biscuit for use on the brigades and at other posts. Most of this bread and biscuit was produced by the post cook and baker, both of whom were male employees of the company. See Gregory Thomas, The North West Bastion Bakehouse, Lower Fort Garry: A Structural and Furnishing Study (Ottawa: Canadian Parks Service, Environment Canada, 1979) Manuscript Report Series #297, and Michael Payne, "Labour at Lower Fort Garry: An Animation History", unpublished report on file, Canadian Parks Service Prairie and Northern Region Office, 1990. For what women actually worked at and who they were at Lower Fort Garry, see Michael Payne, "The Role of Women at Lower Fort Garry, 1840 to 1860: An Animation History", unpublished report on file, Canadian Parks Service, Prairie and Northern Region Office, 1990.

(34.) See Sylvia Van Kirk, "Many Tender Ties": Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980). Echoing British historian Peter Laslett, Van Kirk uses this phrase as the title for the concluding chapter of her book.

(35.) Jennifer Brown, "Fur Trade History as Text and Drama" in Patricia A. McCormack and Geoffrey Ironside (eds.), The Uncovered Past: Roots of Northern Alberta Societies (Edmonton: Circumpolar Institute, University of Alberta, 1993) p. 86.

(36.) Ibid. Although intended as a discussion of popular presentations of the fur trade in written form, many of the points made by this article also can be applied to presentations of the fur trade at historic sites. It should probably be required reading for all site guides and managers and anyone working on exhibits or site publications.

(37.) Sarah Carter, Aboriginal People and Colonizers of Western Canada to 1900 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999) p. 10.

(38.) For example, the latest promotional campaign for museums and historic sites In Alberta was based on the idea that they represent "real history." What this suggests about all other types of historical presentation is intriguing.

(39.) NAC, RG 84, vol. 911, file HS 2.

M. B. Payne Museums and Historic Sites Alberta Community Development, Edmonton

C. J. Taylor Western Canada Service Centre Parks Canada Calgary
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Author:Payne, M.B.; Taylor, C.J.
Publication:Manitoba History
Geographic Code:1CMAN
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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