NORTH BAY, ONTARIO -- After 321 years, the historic Hudson's Bay Co. is getting out of the fur business on which it -- and Canada -- were founded.
"It's certainly not the business it used to be," said Barry Agnew, Hudson's Bay vice president of sales and promotion. The store has begun liquidating its fur stocks across the country with the intent of being completely out of the fur business by spring, he said.
The Bay, as it is known by Canadians, has long been a symbol of the Canadian fur industry, even though it had become a relatively small player in recent years. It sold only about $7 million in fur garments last year in a business that generates $600 million annually for the country's economy.
"The Hudson's Bay Co. is the image of the fur industry in Canada. They have a 300-year history. It is quite significant that a mainstay of the industry is closing," said Liz White of the Toronto-based Animal Alliance.
Although animal-rights activists claimed the decision was a major victory in their anti-fur campaign, Hudson's Bay officials said the move was based strictly on business considerations: Aggressive trapping has led to an oversupply of pelts, while recession has dampened demand. The result, says the company, is that profits have all but disappeared.
Hudson's Bay isn't the only casualty. The misfortunes of the Bay's fur business and the rest of the fur industry are beginning to have a major impact on the lives of thousands of hardy Canadians who are central to the folklore of the country -- the trappers.
Beset by the falling prices and the relentless attacks of animal-rights activists, fur trappers in Canada's northern wilderness say they could be pushed to the brink of extinction if the government does not intervene.
The collapse last month of the country's biggest trappers' cooperative may have signaled a turning point for the rugged and fiercely independent woodsmen whose vocation started in 1610, when Henry Hudson traded with an Indian for two beaver pelts and some deer skins and took word of his discoveries to Europe.
The Ontario Trappers Association, which was created in 1947 to break the Hudson's Bay Co.'s near-monopoly on fur trading, went into receivership on Jan. 4 and its auction house here was padlocked. The association operated the only trapper-owned fur auction in the world, but it fell heavily into debt because of declining sales and a sharp drop in the price of fur.
With bitterness, the trappers say that the Hudson's Bay Fur Sales Auction House -- a spinoff of the Hudson's Bay Co. -- and other big fur-trading companies are standing by buy their pelts, but only at depressed prices, which some of the trappers said they will refuse even if it means taking huge losses.
The Hudson's Bay Fur Sales Auction House was sold by the Bay department store chain to three Hudson's Bay executives in 1987 in partnership with fur ranchers across Canada.
"I'm not going to burn my pelts, but I won't sell them to Hudson's Bay. I don't remember what the monopoly was like in those days, but my dad does, and he won't give his pelts away either," said Marcel La Belle, a third-generation fur trapper.
La Belle's father, Roger, who began trapping nearly 50 years ago, said that although he planned to continue part-time trapping to provide retirement income, he plans to hang onto his pelts for the time being rather than sell them to Hudson's Bay Auction House or other big traders at reduced prices.
"If we can find a way to market our own pelts and get an auction suitable for real trappers, I'll sell them again. I'm a trapper and I'll always be a trapper. I'll find a way to make a living out of it," the elder La Belle said in an interview in his rural home.
The dean of Canadian fur trappers, 90-year-old Ralph Bice, said, "All we wanted was our own market for fair prices and control over trapping conditions. We thought we were sitting on top of the world, and all of a sudden, bingo, it's gone."
Bice's ancestors moved to northern Ontario from Pennsylvania in 1780 to begin setting trap lines, and Bice himself set his first muskrat trap in 1904. In 1985 he was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada. "Thousands of people depend on wild fur for their livelihood, and their families have been doing that since the day Canada was discovered," he said. "I'm heartbroken by what's happened."
For all of its troubles, the fur trading business continues to provide a livelihood for 100,000 Canadians, about half of them native Indians and Inuit, or Eskimos.
According to Statistics Canada, the central statistics agency, a total of 4.6 million pelts worth $123 million (Canadian) were produced in 1987-88, but the following year the total dropped by 38 percent to 3 million pelts worth $75.8 million.
Within the industry, a shift is taking place away from wild pelts to harvesting the fur of ranch-grown animals. Wild pelts now account for nearly half of the total fur production in Canada. But as recently as three years ago, wild pelts outstripped ranched pelts by 3 to 1.
"Ranched fur is where the money is now," said Del Haylock, executive vice president of the Montreal-based Fur Council of Canada.
Trappers here said the beaver pelts that they could sell four years ago for $50 went for $14 in the last auction, hardly enough to pay for the gasoline needed to check trap lines on their snowmobiles.
The fur council maintains that although the total value of sales has fallen over the last two years, the volume of "units," or fur coat sales, has actually increased, despite the animal-rights campaign and other factors influencing the industry.
"The industry is in good shape. We're selling more but at a lower price because of overproduction of ranched fur. We're going through a business cycle at the present time, but we're poised for an upturn," said Haylock.
However, Michael O'Sullivan, Canada representative of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said the council's figures were misleading because the trade group counts accessories and garments with fur trim as "units" sold.
"The fact is, it's a dying industry, and we're very pleased. For years, the fur trade has had carte blanche. Throughout Canada's history, the Canadian government has supported the fur trade, but it is promoting a dying industry," O'Sullivan said.
O'Sullivan said the North American fur industry is now trying to shift its sights to Japan, which, he said, has become the world's largest consumer of furs.
Most trappers try to counter the animal-rights campaign by saying they use modern, humane devices like the Conibear trap, which quickly kills animals, and employ up-to-date wildlife management and conservation techniques designed to assure continuous renewal of fur-bearing animal populations.
"I don't kill animals for the sake of killing them. When Marcel was a boy, I once made him eat a blackbird that he killed because he didn't have any reason for killing it," the elder La Belle said.
He added, "This is a way of life for us. This is our livelihood. These animal-rights people are doing to us what they did to the seal hunters," who were all but wiped out by animal-rights groups in the 1970s.
However, Eldon Hawton, member services manager of the Ontario Trappers Association's marketing arm, North Bay Fur Sales, said the anti-fur campaign was the result of "urban ignorance of people whose total knowledge of wildlife is a squirrel in a park." Lawton said he was confident the trappers could weather the animal-rights movement -- if only they could revive their cooperative and ensure that the market for pelts remained open and competitive.
These days, much of the trappers' anger is directed at the Canadian government for failing to come to their rescue.
"What we needed was some money to help us reorganize and get us through this period, but they wouldn't do it. The founding fathers of Canada should be rolling in their graves. Trapping is the reason for this country's existence, and the politicians won't help," Hawton said.
"This cooperative -- the government never really backed it because the big dealers wanted to make sure they controlled the trading and not the trappers," said Marcel La Belle, looking out toward the 225 square miles of snow-swept countryside where he maintains 200 traps.