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Inaugural Fur Ball a big hit

Yukoners bought and sold more than $50,000 worth of fur at the marketplace

You missed some big fun if you weren’t at last Saturday’s inaugural Fur Ball.

It was sold out, and a big hit with local fashionistas, trappers, crafters and even economists.

The diversity of the crowd was a big part of the fun. The crowd ranged from teenagers to old-timers, and from grizzled trapline veterans to fur-clad Whitehorse hipsters. Ball-goers made new friends and reconnected with old ones from every part of Yukon society. It was a celebration of both the strong First Nation connection to fur, as well as how Yukoners of all backgrounds are deeply involved in the industry.

The enthusiasm for Yukon wild fur was palpable. Everyone was wearing fur fashion of some kind, and I loved hearing the unique story behind each piece. Some knew where the fur was trapped. Or who sewed it. Or which meaningful figure in their life gave it to them.

No one ever talks about how their jacket was made by sweatshop workers in Southeast Asia from the latest synthetic petrochemical fabric and purchased on a website.

There were hats, wraps, scarves, jackets, fur-trimmed vests, pompoms and even bowties to spice up the wardrobes of the most sartorially-challenged men. Mine was sewn by Nathalie Dugas as a fundraiser for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy.

One trapper in street clothes admitted to me sheepishly that his fur was all in the coat check since it was designed for -40 C and not dancing in a hot ballroom.

The Fur Ball at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre was the culmination of a month of events aiming to re-energize Yukon Wild Fur from a coalition called UnFURled, which includes the Yukon Trappers Association and the North Yukon Renewable Resource Council.

In February, UnFURled put on some fun and social events: a fox pom pom workshop at Baked, a beaver plucking workshop at Head to Toe and fur accessory sessions at Yukonstruct.

Two fur exhibits opened before the Fur Ball, which I highly recommend going to see. MacBride Museum partnered with UnFURled to put on a show in Arts Underground. And you can see Wild Lives: Portraits and Stories from Yukon Traplines at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. It has some striking photos by Cathie Archbould accompanied by compelling stories written up by Leighann Chalykoff.

There was also the 2018 Yukon Trappers Fur Showdown, which sounded like a lot of fun. It had the competitive juices flowing. One trapper assured me that the winning lynx wasn’t quite as good as one she had at home not yet fleshed and boarded, and vowed to be better prepared next time.

The evening wrapped up with music, jigging and dancing by the Old Crow Jiggers and Ryan McNally along with a fur fashion show from high school students in the Fashion, Art and Design School program.

UnFURled’s campaign to re-energize Yukon wild fur is also interesting from an economics point of view.

First, the fur business is a critical source of cash income in Yukon communities (in addition to its social and community benefits). It is sustainable and one of the few counterbalances to the gravitational pull of big cities.

But it is tough to make money trapping. As I wrote in an earlier column, average beaver prices in the 1930s were roughly the same (or even a bit higher) in dollar terms as now. If prices had kept up with inflation since the 1930s, the average beaver pelt would sell for around $300 today.

Instead, the February 2018 NAFA wild fur auction had an average price for Western Beaver of around $15.

Yukon trappers usually have to sell their hard-earned harvest at low prices in Outside auction houses.

Meanwhile, Yukon crafters pay surprisingly high prices — a tanned beaver might sell for seven or eight times the typical auction price mentioned above — to buy fur from Outside processors ready to be made into garments.

Outside processors do perform important tasks along what consultants would call the “fur value chain,” so there is some justification for their markups. But there is clearly an opportunity for Yukoners to cut out the middleman and have local trappers trade directly with crafters.

The UnFURled marketplace during the afternoon before the Fur Ball was an attempt to make this happen. Jason Van Fleet, from the North Yukon Renewable Resources Council in Old Crow, announced to warm applause that more than $50,000 of business had been done at the marketplace.

This raises an important point about what some economists call “institutional infrastructure.” What was stopping Yukon trappers from doing business with Yukon crafters before UnFURled? Or for Yukoners to buy fur products directly from both groups?

Far from being free-for-alls, even so-called free markets usually take place in some kind of institutional context that brings people on both sides of the deal together in one place with some rules. Consider the origins of the London Stock Exchange. At first, if you wanted to buy or sell shares in an early company such as the East India Company or Hudson’s Bay Company, you had to know a guy who knew a guy who wanted to buy or sell. Then, in the mid 1700s, Jonathan’s Coffee House acquired a reputation as a place where you could meet people who might want to buy or sell stock.

Picture yourself going into Baked on Main Street with the paper share certificates from your retirement savings to find someone who would buy them from you.

The London market didn’t really take off until the patrons of Jonathan’s formally set up the London Stock Exchange.

So kudos to the organizers of UnFURled for setting up the marketplace. It let trappers know that there would be buyers. It let crafters know there would be sellers. And it let regular Yukoners drop in and buy things directly, which economists would call “adding liquidity” to the market.

UnFURled is just the latest in a long line of good work the Yukon Trappers Association, North Yukon Renewable Resource Council and others have been doing to support the Yukon’s original industry. The UnFURled team, including Van Fleet, Kelly Milner, Kelly Proudfoot and Lisa Preto have added their energy to the effort.

It strikes me that their two-pronged strategy has great potential. The crowd at the Fur Ball clearly loved the idea of wearing more Yukon fur more often, and I think more promotion will be like pushing on an open door with Yukoners. Secondly, the fur marketplace concept is a good idea.

I look forward to seeing where these Yukoners take UnFURled next, and to having an even snappier fur bow tie at the next 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.