Fur is part of the Yukon’s soul.
Even gold mining, with its century and a half history here, is a relative newcomer.
Fur has been part of First Nations life in the Yukon for thousands of years. Today, fur is a passion shared widely: First Nations and non-First Nations Yukoners, producers and users of fur, old-time Yukoners and newcomers.
So it’s great to see Yukon trappers, traders and artisans celebrating fur with the new “I’m Fur Real” campaign.
The North Yukon Renewable Resources Council, Yukon Trappers Association and a wide range of partners launched the effort at the festive and caribou-stew-fuelled “Unfurled” event recently.
Organizers Kelly Milner, Lisa Preto and Jason van Fleet unveiled the group’s plans for fur events, sewing workshops, product fairs and other activities across the Yukon in the coming months. Expect to see “Yukon Fur Real” hats, buttons and fur pom-poms on Team Yukon at the upcoming Arctic Winter Games. There will also be magazine articles, podcasts with trappers and sewers and other information online.
It will all come together at the Fur Ball in the Spring. If you want to avoid “spring breakup” with your romantic partner after you end up explaining why you’re at home watching TV instead of stepping out together to the big event, now is the time to mark the calendar.
You might even want add a bit of affordable Yukon fur fashion to the Christmas list. The folks at the Unfurled launch event sported a range of stylish and functional fur items for every budget.
Trapping is one of the richest outdoor experiences in the Yukon. I have spent a certain amount of time on the trapline over the years as the bumbling assistant to an experienced trapper. You have to adapt to the rhythm of the land, the weather and the animals. You learn new things about the Yukon bush, its inhabitants and yourself. You learn to admire the trapper’s knowledge of furbearers and, in most cases, snowmobile engines. And you work hard.
It builds character, as they used to say.
That’s why I was glad to find out from Environment Yukon staff how many young Yukoners get a flavour of trapping at school. Sadly, my elementary school didn’t have Muskrat Camp back in the day.
When my grandfather turned 21 in Whitehorse, his brothers gave him the 1930 edition of Fur: A Practical Treatise by Max Bachrach. This tome had everything the young Yukoner entering the business needed to know, from marten habits to the differences between interior and Alaska coastal beaver pelts.
Comparing the fur business today to 1930 is instructive. According to long-term price data from the Wisconsin game department, beaver pelts averaged around US$15-20 in the early 1930s. The Canadian dollar was around par at the time.
The Bank of Canada inflation calculator says $20 in 1930 would be worth $294 in today’s money.
However, the North American Fur Auction report says Western Canadian beaver averaged $15.94 at its May 2017 auction.
Time has been even less kind to beaver prices than it has been to the Canadian dollar.
If you have ever spent time trapping beaver, you’ll know that prices like this hardly make up for the sled gas and other expenses let alone the time commitment of the trapper.
While it might seem surprising for such an ancient industry, globalization has also affected the fur business. Old markets in Europe have withered under anti-fur campaigns. In the 1990s, I worked at the Canadian Mission in Brussels and one of our jobs was to try to educate Members of the European Parliament about fur. Very few understood the impact some of their anti-fur measures would have on Indigenous and rural communities in Canada.
More recently, the importance of China and Russia have grown, both as competitors but also markets.
It’s a complex business.
In the end, it all boils down the fur price. Beaver at $15.94 makes it very hard for trappers who are forced to sell into the global market and see their pelts processed and resold at much higher values to faraway customers.
That’s why it’s so promising that Unfurled also involves artisans and entrepreneurs. If more Yukoners buy local wild fur products, that helps capture more value here for both trappers and artisans. There are economic benefits to that. But the main benefit is that it helps trapping survive and be passed on to the next generation of Yukoners.
So I suggest you check out Yukon wild fur at local stores or online on websites like Etsy. And watch the Unfurled website at unfurled.com for upcoming events.
See you on Saturday night, March 10, at the Fur Ball.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.