The 1821 merger of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company was a significant factor in the decline of the fur trade. After several decades of intense competition, the two companies became one. To hold on to its royal charter privileges, the new entity chose to keep the HBC name while largely retaining the people and practices of the old NWC. With shipping more economical via York Factory on Hudson Bay, the old route from Montreal to Lake Superior was no longer needed for transporting furs and trade goods. Consequently, Montreal lost its status as North America's fur trade capital.
Colonization of the west contributed further to the decline of the fur trade, upsetting the old economy and creating disputes over land rights. Aboriginal peoples, Métis and fur merchants opposed the new wave of settlers. Tension grew throughout the 19th century. Conflict broke out several times, with incidents such as the Battle of Seven Oaks, the Riel-led North West Rebellion and finally the Battle of Batoche.
The arrival of the railway, accelerating immigration to the West, dealt the final blow to the trade of voyageur. By the beginning of the 20th century, voyageurs were rare in Eastern Canada, while the few remaining in the West were marginalized to the North. A number of them adapted to the new order, but most stayed on the edge of society.
With the fur trade in decline, many different destinies awaited the voyageurs. Some became labourers for the HBC, but in doing so they had to take a 50% pay cut. Others returned to the land and became farmers. Many went back to the East, some taking their wives and children with them. In eastern Canada, a lot of ex-voyageurs found work in new industries such as logging.
A substantial number of retired engagés chose to settle with their families in the West, becoming Freemen who hunted and supplied the HBC. Communities of Freemen sprang up throughout the region. The largest, at the Red River, became a de facto retirement settlement for voyageurs.
An enormous number of North American place names bear witness to the passage of the voyageurs. Along canoe routes from Quebec to British Columbia, at least 25 Canadian communities trace their names to the fur trade era. Among them are Lachine, Fort Okanagan, Fort Daer and Fort Douglas. Many place names in the North West are constant reminders of the trade's leaders. For example, Ogden Point in Victoria, British Columbia, commemorates fur trader Peter Skene Ogden.
The voyageurs' legacy is most evident among the Métis descendants of their unions with Native women. This nation has inherited a distinctive language and culture, which developed as the fur trade expanded west from Montréal. To this day, many Métis uphold the traditions of hunting and fur trapping. Large populations live in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, with one of the most important communities located at Batoche.
Une importante communauté s'est établie à Batoche, en Saskatchewan.
Some traditions of the coureur des bois and the North West Company voyageurs continue to this day. Many still embrace the idea of the voyageur. They re-enact history by adopting clothing styles and pursuing activities of the voyageurs, such as canoeing and hunting. Nowadays the voyageur lifestyle is largely symbolic, but in the past these were essential elements of his identity.
Associations across Canada promote the voyageur heritage. Dance groups and festivals celebrate the music of the period. Competitive events such as snowshoe races are popular ways to honour and enjoy sport from the past. For an adventurous way to enjoy Canada's heritage, why not travel by canoe along the country's scenic network of former fur trade routes?
The act of merger of the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company required more than 12,000 pages of documents. The act included a declaration stating which NWC partners would work for the new HBC and under what conditions.
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