The humble St. Joseph's Ukrainian Catholic Church parish hall in Thompson is a long way from high-end department stores in Beijing and Moscow.
But about 100 northern Manitoba trappers lugged their winter harvest of fur pelts into the church hall in the northern Manitoba city for the annual Thompson Fur Table on Friday, hoping luxury-goods consumers in Asian and European capitals are in a spending mood.
The Thompson Fur Table brings in the country's largest fur buyers for a two-day event unlike anything else in Canada.
Buyers with stacks of cash on hand -- including the country's largest fur auction houses as well as the North West Company -- sit behind tables making silent auction-style bids on piles of marten, beaver, muskrat and the occasional lynx and wolverine pelts from about 100 of the province's 5,000 licensed trappers.
"There's nothing like it in Canada," said Dave Bewick, vice-president of Canadian Wild Fur Operations for North American Fur Auctions. "It's a fantastic event and a great chance for people to get together. The trappers can get some cash right before Christmas and head off to the Wal-Mart or someplace else."
Started in the late 1970s by the province as a way to assist trappers in getting quicker access to a cash market for their pelts, it has become an annual two-day event run by the Manitoba Trappers Association.
Some of the buyers in Thompson, like the North West Company, will pay cash on the full price. The auction houses will make partial payments, promising the balance on consignment.
They then take their haul to auctions in Toronto and North Bay, Ont.. where international buyers from the big overseas markets like China, Korea, Greece, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, as well as Western Europe, Great Britain and the United States, will likely pay even more than the Thompson prices.
The North West Company -- the modern-day successor to the original Hudson's Bay Company fur traders of the 17th and 18th centuries -- buys fur throughout the harvest season at about 90 different Northern Store locations throughout the North. But the Thompson Fur Table is the occasion for its largest two-day purchase of the year.
Bewick said this year prices are close to what they were last year, which was a disappointing one for the fur business just as it was for just about every other commodity industry in the world.
The global economic crisis knocked the bottom out of fur prices in 2008. Russian retail sales were particularly bad and Bewick said if it wasn't for Chinese consumers, last year would have been a disaster.
Don Rumford, chief operating officer of North Bay-based Fur Harvesters Auction Inc., said the hope is that 2009 will be a rebuilding year for the industry.
"Most buyers are on the cautious side so far this year," he said.
For instance, a good-quality pine or American marten, the mainstay of the northern Manitoba fur harvest, fetched about $100 at the Thompson Fur Table in 2007.
Last year marten pelts averaged about $50 and indications before the close of the market Friday were that prices were about the same this year.
Cherry White, head of the Manitoba Trappers Association, said the volume of pelts and the number of trappers at the event was down a little from last year.
A particularly mild November prevented some trappers from crossing big lakes to get to their trap lines. But she said the last couple of weeks of colder weather helped.
"It's a tiny bit slower today than last year," she said from the St. Joseph's parish hall on Friday afternoon. "And prices are maybe just a little bit lower."
But she said discriminating fans of fur fashion will continue to pay good prices for luxury garments made with the thick fur of the hearty northern Manitoba fur-bearing animals.
Dean Berezanski, the fur-bearing species biologist for Manitoba Conservation, said values and volumes are down this year partly because trappers were a couple of weeks late getting at their traps.
But he said the marten has made a "spectacular" recovery over the last 30 years and now surpasses other species for Manitoba trappers by about two to one compared to the closest competitors.
Whereas a good-quality marten pelt may fetch about $50 this year, a beaver pelt might be less than half that amount.
Fifteen years ago they were much closer in price.
Manitoba fur prices
$50.03 -- marten, 2008 average price
$64.13 -- marten, 2002-2006 average
$18.87 -- beaver, 2008 average price
$42.73 -- beaver, 2002-2006 average
$2.50 -- muskrat, 2008 average price
$3.38 -- muskrat, 2002-2006 average
$20.58 -- coyote, 2008 average price
$45.46 -- coyote, 2002-2006 average
$276.35 -- wolverine, 2008 average price
$212.74 -- wolverine, 2002-2006 average