In an effort to revive the fur industry in Manitoba and provide a backstop to encourage more artisans to use fur, the Manitoba Metis Federation is making a $1 million investment in the industry.
Details on how the new funds will flow have not been worked out yet, but MMF president David Chartrand said that a newly created arm of the MMF, the Red River Métis Fur Company, will help to create a more liquid marketplace by both buying raw fur pelts, retailing artisan products through the MMF’s Ed Simard General Store (ESGS) and developing international markets in places such as Greece, Turkey and Russia.
The economic development aspect underpinning the initiative is hoped to combat the various actions over the past couple of decades that has marginalized fur and made wearing it the scourge of many animal rights activists.
"The fur industry has taken a helluva beating," Chartrand said referencing animal welfare groups campaigns to ban fur in the garment industry.
This year Canada Goose plans to eliminate coyote fur from its signature parkas. Other global brands including Dolce & Gabbana have officially announced discontinuing the use of animal fur in all of its products this year. Retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue will also stop selling products that include fur.
But Chartrand said that despite that kind of global pushback the fur industry remains a vital part of Métis culture and he believes there continues to be a market but that trappers need leg up to overcome societal pressures that have depressed the industry.
"You’re damn right there has been a big impact," he said. "Many families lost about a third of their income and nobody came to replace them with any new economic options."
But he said demand from artisans remains high. A recent kit the MMF produced for using fur and hides to make slippers and shoes sold out very quickly.
Meanwhile prices for raw pelts have tumbled just in the past few years for for popular Manitoba fur like beaver, muskrat and marten.
In the 2021-22 Trapping Guide put out by the Manitoba Trappers Association (MTA), for instance, it lists five year average prices for beaver between 2004 to 2009 at $33.64. But beaver pelts were only fetching an average of $16.05 in the 2019-2020 season. (That is the most recent data the MTA has.)
The MTA reports belies Chartrand’s suggestion that people were exiting the industry. According to the report filed by the MTA’s past president, Rob Andrushuk, in the five years between 2017 and 2021 MTA membership increased by 24 per cent. But between the 2017-18 and 2019-20 trapping years, there was about 10 per cent decline in the number of trapping licences issues in Manitoba.
Chartrand said the MMF investment will be initially targeted at Métis trappers but would also likely benefit First Nations trappers as well.
While the injection of what will effectively be a new buyer in the market — as well as another resource for trappers when it comes to upgrading equipment and even assistance to artisans — it is too early to tell what sort of impact it will have on the industry.
An official from the MTA declined to comment on the MMF enterprise citing a need for further details.
Regardless of the impact on the industry, Chartrand is adamant about the potential cultural impact on such an investment.
"We have been talking about this for some time in our (the MMF’s) government," he said. "We need to revive this part of our culture. This who we are. The Métis have always been trappers."
Chartrand said the MMF will pay a premium to prices trappers are receiving at fur auctions that occur in Thompson and Toronto.
No one from the Fur Institute of Canada was available to speak, but that organization, which has a large percentage of fur farms as its membership base, said that last decade (the most recent stats it publishes) Canadian trappers and fur farm owners earned more than $320 million annually in pelt sales.
Ten years ago there were 50,000 active trappers in Canada, including 25,000 Indigenous people.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.