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Working People in Alberta


Series editors: Alvin Finkel and Greg Kealey

The Canadian Committee on Labour History is Canada’s organization of historians and other scholars interested in the study of the lives and struggles of working people throughout Canada’s past. Since 1976, the CCLH has published Labour/Le Travail, Canada’s pre-eminent scholarly journal of labour studies. It also publishes books, now in conjunction with AU Press, that focus on the history of Canada’s working people and their organizations. The emphasis in this series is on materials that are accessible to labour audiences as well as university audiences rather than simply on scholarly studies in the labour area. This includes documentary collections, oral histories, autobiographies, biographies, and provincial and local labour movement histories with a popular bent.



Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist
Bert Whyte, edited and with an introduction by Larry Hannant

Working People in Alberta: A History
Alvin Finkel, with contributions by Jason Foster, Winston Gereluk, Jennifer Kelly and Dan Cui, James Muir, Joan Schiebelbein, Jim Selby, and Eric Strikwerda

A History


with contributions by JASON FOSTER,


For Neil Reimer, 1921–2011
in recognition of his unparalleled contribution to the
betterment of the lives of working people in Alberta




INTRODUCTION: Those Who Built Alberta

Alvin Finkel

1    Millennia of Native Work

Alvin Finkel

2    The Fur Trade and Early European Settlement

Alvin Finkel

3    One Step Forward: Alberta Workers 1885–1914

Jim Selby

4    War, Repression, and Depression, 1914–1939

Eric Strikwerda and Alvin Finkel

5    Alberta Labour and Working-Class Life, 1940–1959

James Muir

6    The Boomers Become the Workers: Alberta, 1960–1980

Alvin Finkel

7    Alberta Labour in the 1980s

Winston Gereluk

8    Revolution, Retrenchment, and the New Normal: The 1990s and Beyond

Jason Foster

9    Women, Labour, and the Labour Movement

Joan Schiebelbein

10    Racialization and Work

Jennifer Kelly and Dan Cui

CONCLUSION: A History to Build Upon

Alvin Finkel







Our greatest debt in the production of this book is to the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI) for its over two hundred interviews with Alberta trade union leaders and rank-and-file workers, covering events from the 1930s to the present. The ALHI, working with the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) on Project 2012 — an organizational effort to commemorate the founding of the AFL in 1912 — suggested that a book of this kind would be a fitting way to celebrate the occasion and asked Alvin Finkel to undertake its research and writing. We thank both the ALHI and the AFL, as well as everyone involved with Project 2012, for their inspiration and ongoing encouragement.

We are also grateful to the anonymous reviewers for AU Press who provided incisive suggestions that we attempted to incorporate in our revisions. Editors Joyce Hildebrand and Pamela MacFarland Holway have raised important questions and improved the organization of our materials as well as our prose. Ron Patterson took charge of the collection of images, while Natalie Olsen is responsible for the book’s elegant design.

We thank the Alberta Federation of Labour and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees for their financial support for the research and production of this book. They donated to the project with no strings attached. No official of either union body asked for or received an opportunity to read any of the chapters as they were written or before they were finalized. In short, the book is not an official history of any union organization, though it was timed to appear for the centennial celebration of the AFL so as to contribute to reflections on labour’s past in Alberta and on lessons for its future. While three of the authors — Jim Selby, Winston Gereluk, and Jason Foster — are past employees of the federation, none had any relationship with it at the time they wrote their chapters. This book is solely the product of its authors, and no one exercised any censorship or any attempt to impose particular points of views on any of the authors. The authors are all activists and/or sympathizers with the labour movement and work in labour-related fields. But this is an effort to tell the history of working people to the best of our abilities, not to whitewash anything within Alberta labour history or to give only one side of the story in internecine union battles.

As we were preparing this book, we were saddened by the death of Neil Reimer, one of the great heroes of the Alberta labour movement. Neil’s lifelong efforts as a trade union organizer, trade union official, politician, and social activist have resulted in better representation and better working conditions for Alberta workers, and have improved social policies for Alberta workers and seniors. Always committed to education for and about working people in Alberta, Neil became an early member of ALHI; he conducted many interviews and agreed to be interviewed at length himself on several occasions. His efforts to create more autonomy for Canadian workers led to the creation of an independent Canadian union, the Energy and Chemical Workers Union (ECWU), in an area where American-led unions once prevailed in Canada. The ECWU was one of the three Canadian unions that merged in 1992 to form the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada.

Neil’s successful efforts to organize refinery workers in Alberta in the 1950s defied the common wisdom that the entire oil industry was beyond the reach of unionism. The Oil Workers International Union rewarded his efforts by making him its Canadian director. Under his leadership, the union fought not only for better wages but also for improved safety standards and greater union involvement in enforcing safety. An officer of the Canadian Labour Congress as well as his own union, Neil played a big role in the creation of the national New Democratic Party and became the party’s first Alberta leader. To the end of his days, he remained active in both union and political work, serving during his retirement in many capacities, including president of the Alberta Council on Aging. A towering figure in the trade union and social justice communities in Alberta, Neil will be remembered for his storytelling, humour, and abundant humanity, which inspired all of the authors of this book.




Most Canadians — and even many Albertans — view Alberta as a rich, placid province where the streets are paved with gold, thanks to the province’s fossil fuel riches. In this view, Alberta is a one-class, one-party province where meaningful political debates about social values are absent. Certainly, one book, published in 2009, portrays recent immigrants to Alberta from other provinces as viewing their new home as the “second promised land,” a place with low taxes and little government interference in people’s daily lives.1 An earlier study, however, demonstrates that this perspective on the province is too simplistic and ignores evidence that many, perhaps even most Albertans embrace communitarian values rather than the conservative values that are often attributed to them.2

Often lost in such discussions is the fact that Alberta has a capitalist economy in which some owners of capital have become very rich and some who must work for a living have done rather less well. The working people who built and continue to build the province of Alberta often vanish from the story when the focus is on constitutional battles between Edmonton and Ottawa, and on the mythological, individualist “mavericks” whom some wish to portray as embodying the true Alberta spirit.3 While entrepreneurial individuals have certainly played a role in the history of the Prairies, their contribution has been modest relative to that of the workers, farmers, and small-business operators who have always formed the overwhelming majority of the population. It is a history of this majority, and especially its working-class component, that this book tells. It is a history in which entrepreneurs give way to trade union organizers and groups like the Industrial Workers of the World, the CCF, and the Communist Party; the Hunger Marchers of 1932; the Gainers’ strikers and the “Dandelions” of the 1980s; the mostly female Calgary laundry workers who put the brakes on Ralph Klein’s efforts to destroy the public sector in the 1990s; and the Lakeside Packers workers, most of whom belonged to a visible minority, who organized against all the odds within a classically reactionary community in the early twenty-first century.

In an earlier effort to portray the history of Alberta workers, Warren Caragata produced Alberta Labour: A Heritage Untold in 1979, a lively history of working people in Alberta that focused on union struggles.4 Caragata was a staffer at the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), and writing the book was one of his assigned duties. Caragata evidently enjoyed a fair degree of independence in writing the book — although, according to AFL staff members at the time, AFL president Harry Kostiuk, reflecting Cold War sentiments that were still strong in the labour movement, made him abbreviate or remove certain passages that emphasized the major role played by Communists within certain labour struggles. Nonetheless, Caragata produced an excellent history of working-class struggles, incorporating material from interviews with some participants in those struggles. I strongly recommend that those interested in Alberta labour history make use of Caragata’s study, in addition to the present work, to explore developments between 1883 and 1956, the period on which Alberta Labour concentrates.

Alberta Labour reflects the time and circumstances in which it was written. Historians were only beginning to shift from histories of “great men” and institutions toward social history, so the book contains little about workers who tried but failed to organize trade unions or about women, Aboriginals, and people of colour.

This book attempts to build on Caragata’s achievement while also discussing the history of workers in the province in the thirty-five years since Caragata did most of his research. But it is more than simply an update, since a key focus of Working People in Alberta: A History is the incorporation of social history approaches to the history of working people. In this respect, our work is greatly aided by the over two hundred interviews that have been videographed and transcribed by the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI). ALHI was formed in 1999 by trade unionists and academics who felt that too much of the history of Alberta had been told from the point of view of the elites and too little from the perspective of its working people. Many labour pioneers and union activists were aging, and if they were not interviewed soon, their stories might die with them. Operating mainly as a volunteer organization, ALHI set out to conduct comprehensive interviews with working people from a variety of backgrounds throughout the province. ALHI has also sponsored and recorded events in which key players discuss major working-class historical issues, and its website (www.labourhistory.ca) includes a labour history chronology of the province and excerpts from its many interviews. ALHI’s annual labour history calendar is popular with trade unions throughout the province.

ALHI played a key role in the evolution of this book. In 2008, the institute formed a partnership with the AFL in order to produce materials to mark the centennial of the federation in 2012. This collaborative project, named Project 2012, was largely funded by the AFL and its affiliates, with ALHI and AFL staff sharing the work. The two groups have been working together to produce booklets, DVDs, posters, and a conference so that the centennial will be a means to reflect on the labour movement’s past and provoke discussion about future directions. Both groups agreed that a new book detailing labour history in the province should be produced, and I was asked to coordinate this effort. Discussions between ALHI and the AFL revealed a common interest in ensuring that the book be more than simply a history of the labour movement; it was also to be a social history of working people, including both unorganized workers and the trade unions.

Unlike the Caragata book, which begins with the arrival of white settlers in Alberta and the creation of a classic paid labour force, Working People in Alberta: A History begins with the history of work in Alberta during the 98 percent of its history when only First Nations lived there. Chapter 1, “Millennia of Native Work,” tells the story of the period of First Nations’ control over the areas that constitute today’s Alberta and the sophisticated ways in which they organized their work and their lives. This chapter provides a glimpse into how people distributed necessary work tasks and benefited from labour before European domination of Alberta ushered in organizational inequality with respect to work and distribution of social benefits. But it is indeed just a glimpse. The history of Native work in Alberta deserves a book of its own: this book only traces the outlines of what such a book might detail.

Chapter 2, “The Fur Trade and Early European Settlement,” deals with the period in which the commercial fur trade, organized by Europeans, was superimposed on the traditional economies and societies of First Nations in what is now Alberta, assessing the fur trade’s impact on the lives of Aboriginals. It also explores the effect on the First Nations of the decline of the fur trade and the advance of European settlement into the region. Overall, we see that the fur trade was a partnership among two peoples in which Native peoples retained most features of their traditional cultures while absorbing European ideas and goods to the extent that they deemed appropriate. In contrast, the settlement period was marked by dispossession and marginalization of Native peoples, a ruthless attack on their traditional cultures, and heavy-handed efforts to assimilate them to European ways.

Chapters 3 to 8 detail a chronological history of working people in Alberta from the settlement period onward. In each chapter, an effort is made to explore the political economy that underpinned labour issues. Chapter 3, “One Step Forward: Alberta Workers, 1885-1914,” deals with the period of initial European settlement in the region, a period in which Alberta was mainly a burgeoning agricultural province. Industry and a concomitant industrial working class developed to meet the needs of the farmers for goods and services. While the farmers were mainly independent commodity producers, they felt subordinated to the power of shippers, buyers, and bankers, and could sometimes make common cause with industrial workers to restrain the power of such big capitalists. But as employers of farm labourers, whom they often exploited, farmers were cool to labour’s calls for shorter work days, better pay, and more worker control within workplaces. They were often ambivalent about advocacy for social insurance programs and for nationalization of industry. The early labour movement that developed in this period had both conservative elements, particularly within the trades unions that emphasized craft exclusivity, and radical elements, exemplified by the miners who sympathized with Marxist calls for the elimination of capitalists and the creation of a workers’ state in which exploitation would disappear.

The first three chapters are based almost exclusively on the existing secondary literature on early Alberta history. The remaining chapters rely very heavily on the documentary record and, in particular, on the ALHI interviews. Chapter 4, “War, Repression, and Depression, 1914-39,” with its focus on World War I and the interwar period, traces an era of relative economic stagnation and major political changes. The farmers’ movement took power provincially in 1921 from the bourgeois elements that controlled the Liberal Party government from 1905 to 1921, and it remained in power until the finance-obsessed Social Credit party won the provincial election in 1935. Independent labour politics emerged after World War I, and labour had electoral victories at all levels of government, reflecting a growing class consciousness among Alberta workers, particularly in urban and industrial areas. The mainstream of the labour movement attempted to work closely with the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA) during its period in government, but the wisdom of that decision was called into question when the Great Depression arrived in late 1929 and the UFA proved to have only anemic strategies for helping its victims. While a Communist movement, originating in the 1920s in Alberta, played an important role in organizing the unemployed in the 1930s, other new forces emerged during the Depression including the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of the New Democratic Party (NDP), and a reinvigorated industrial union movement with American roots.

Chapter 5, “Alberta Labour and Working-Class Life, 1940-59,” assesses the impact on workers of a major reshaping of Alberta’s political economy, particularly after the chain of discoveries of large oil and gas deposits, beginning with the oil strike in Leduc in 1947. Alberta changed from a predominantly rural, agrarian province dependent on prices for agricultural products to a province dependent on the fortunes of “black gold.” Most of the coal mines closed, farming became a poor cousin to oil and gas exploration and exploitation, and dizzying economic growth replaced the stagnation of the interwar period. Workers’ efforts to benefit from the new wealth were limited by the Social Credit government’s alliance with big capital in the oil and gas industry and the determination of these two partners to keep unions out of the energy fields. Labour managed some gains despite this anti-union alliance, but in the context of the Cold War, a right-wing provincial government that passed anti-labour laws, and economic growth, Alberta workers lost much of their class consciousness and their interwar economic and political power. Large-scale migration of workers from other provinces and abroad meant that some of the province’s former labour struggles were unknown to many workers in Alberta.

Chapter 6, “The Boomers Become the Workers: Alberta, 1960-80,” examines the impact of international movements of anti-colonialism and youth rebellion on class consciousness in a province where the power of the energy industry was increasing dramatically. Although the Social Credit government was finally defeated in 1971, the successor Progressive Conservative regime was no more sympathetic to workers’ efforts to gain a greater share of the province’s wealth and to have safer workplaces and better provincial social programs. The fledgling New Democratic Party received some support from the provincial labour movement, but conservative elements within the movement continued to be apolitical and to see labour’s job in the narrow terms of dealing with individual employers. State employees were increasingly restive, however, and rebelled against the paternalism of their employers to build fighting unions during this period.

Chapter 7, “Alberta Labour in the 1980s,” deals with what may have been the most radical period of labour history in Alberta to date. As international energy prices collapsed in the context of a global recession that began in late 1981, the weaknesses of having the province’s economic strength based on one industry became apparent. Labour and its allies called for greater government involvement to diversify the Alberta economy. But this was the era in which neo-liberalism was emerging worldwide, with employers and governments calling for a return to the policies of the pre-Depression era in which the marketplace made most economic decisions. It meant that governments would severely cut the social benefits that workers had achieved since 1945 and that the laws governing the operation of unions would render them almost toothless so that capital could regain the profit levels that it had enjoyed in earlier periods. Workers and their unions resisted employers’ efforts to make workers pay for the recession that capitalists had caused, and strike waves and worker protests of various kinds marked this period. The NDP became the provincial official opposition in 1986 and again in 1989.

Chapter 8 concludes the chronological history of Alberta’s working people. “Revolution, Retrenchment, and the New Normal: The 1990s and Beyond” examines the eventual triumph of neo-liberalism as well as continuing working-class efforts to mitigate its effects and to discredit its ideological assumptions. This was a period in which the energy industry, now focused on the northern oil sands, went beyond dominating the provincial economy to become its almost exclusive focus. The province’s manufacturing base crumbled, leaving the Alberta economy less diversified than at almost any other time in its history. Politically, the so-called Klein Revolution, referring to the period when Progressive Conservative Premier Ralph Klein decimated the civil service and provincial programs, challenged the idea that citizens had a right to basic health, educational, and social services, and that such services could be provided efficiently by the state. The labour movement, more divided than in the 1970s, scrambled to unite its members behind campaigns to protect public services, while efforts to organize in the private sector yielded only a few key victories.

Chapter 9 elaborates on a theme that runs throughout this book but requires a synthesis and evaluation of its own. “Women, Labour, and the Labour Movement” looks at both the factors that have held women back within the labour force in Alberta and their determined efforts to use both trade unions and pressure upon governments to create more gender justice. It argues that the unions, while laggards on issues of gender rights before the 1970s, have made considerable progress since that time in fighting for the interests of working women.

Finally, Chapter 10, “Racialization and Work,” looks at the continuing struggle of minority workers of colour to achieve social justice in Alberta. As was the case for gender struggles, the trade union movement was rife with prejudice in earlier periods. Since the 1960s, however, the labour movement has played an increasingly important role in the struggle for social equality and human rights, both in the workplace and the broader community.


FIG 1-1 A Cree man in his canoe, illustrated by Edward S. Curtis, ca. 1910. Glenbow Archives, NA-1700-6.




The world is round and each society has been given the right to exist in this world within its territory. This is how the Creator had arranged it. Therefore, the traditional territory of the Blackfoot Nation was given to our people by our Creator. We respected and protected this traditional territory with our minds and our hearts and we depended on it for what it encompasses for our survival. Everything that we ever needed for our way of life and survival existed in our traditional territory, such as herbs for medicine, roots, rivers, game animals, berries, vegetables, the buffalo.1

Elder Adam Delaney’s description of the Blackfoot people’s views of their lives in the millennia before the arrival of Europeans is largely echoed by the other First Nations people of Alberta, though in each natural region the resources allegedly bestowed by the Creator differed. Any history of Alberta that accurately reflects historical time should devote 98 percent of its space to Native peoples, who, according to the most conservative estimates, have lived within what is now called Alberta for at least thirteen thousand years. The post-contact period (the period in which both Natives and newcomers have lived in Alberta) is less than three hundred years old, a blip in historical time.

The Native view of their traditional past emphasizes the role of the Creator and the importance to Native people of following the Creator’s teachings. Like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Native religions are monotheistic. The great religions of the Old World, however, have creation stories in which God gave dominion to humans over all other animals as well as plants. In contrast, according to Aboriginal religions, the Creator gave spirits to all animals and plants, and humans, while they needed to consume other living things, were instructed to do so in ways that respected them as God’s creations. If they failed to do so, the Creator would punish them by depriving them of game and plants. In their view, the Creator expected them to take only what they needed and to demonstrate respect for non-humans via elaborate rituals.2

Humans were also expected to respect one another, particularly within their primary affinity group, which was also their work group. Cree communities in the parklands region gathered regularly in circles to collectively pray, talk, heal, and reconcile, and to make supreme efforts to treat one another as equal children of the Creator. The Dene or Athabascan in the North, the Cree in the north-central region, and Blackfoot peoples in the centre and south of the province had similar beliefs and ceremonies. Although it is important to emphasize that each Native culture had its own language, its own story of how the Earth was created, and its own social structures, for all of these cultural groups, land was the property of the Creator, not of individuals, and everyone had to work together to use, share, and conserve the land and resources that the Creator had bestowed upon the group.3

On the surface, then, it might seem that Native peoples in Alberta experienced no historical development during the thirteen thousand years before they began contact through the fur trade with strangers from Europe. Some people, particularly during the period of colonial conquest of the Americas, used the word primitive to describe pre-contact Native societies in Alberta and the rest of Canada and the Americas. (The term pre-contact generally refers to the period before an Aboriginal society developed regular contact with Europeans.) They suggested that Natives hunted and gathered using never-changing, almost intuitive, techniques. In this view, Native societies in 1700 AD were no different than they had been in 9000 BC. To some, this meant that they were uncivilized and needed to be swept away by the Europeans, who were supposedly more advanced in areas such as technology and religion. Others argued for leaving them alone and treating the Americas much like a game preserve for early humans. While the latter, minority point of view would have benefited the Natives more over the long term, it was, like the former view, based on a completely incorrect dichotomy of allegedly “civilized” societies — European cultures — and “savage” societies — virtually all other cultures. In fact, Native societies changed dramatically over time as they constantly tried to find ways to better shape the resources that the Creator had given them to ensure that their material and spiritual needs were met.

The view that Native societies in the Americas were less advanced technologically than European societies was based largely on the superiority of European weapons and on the “logic” of conquerors that those whom they are conquering are inferiors. That view was reinforced in the Americas by the conquerors’ destruction of many Native societies and the burying of the Natives’ achievements. Archaeology and the oral histories that have been passed on from generation to generation of Aboriginal survivors have challenged the “cowboys and Indians” caricatures of the European-Aboriginal conflicts. We now know that the knowledge of various Native groups was immense and that terms such as Stone Age and primitive, once used to denigrate these societies, cover up the complexities and ever-changing character of the cultures of the Americas. The pre-contact Native peoples had long histories of interacting with a changing environment, and though the names of individual inventors and developers are largely unknown, the collective knowledge of these peoples that developed over time was impressive. Some of it may never be recovered because colonial germs and violence resulted in millions of deaths over a short period of time.

The Inca Empire centred in Peru, for example, synthesized the architectural, mathematical, astronomical, agricultural, and religious knowledge of the various Andean peoples whom the Inca conquered. Among the achievements of these peoples, who used stone and not metals, was the construction of earthquake-proof buildings and flood-proof roads. Their understanding of how stones could be chiseled to fit together so as not to be dismantled by natural forces was one application of their sophisticated mathematical and geological knowledge. In contrast, the Spanish conquerors and their successors deprecated the people they conquered and never bothered to learn anything from them about survival in the Andes region; instead, they applied their “developed” European technologies to build lovely edifices that were frequently ruined by earthquakes and ambitious roadway projects that stood covered in water and mud when flooding occurred. The sophisticated irrigation systems that the Andean peoples had developed in the desert conditions of their region remained unmatched for at least the first three hundred years of Spanish occupation.4

On the surface, the achievements of the peoples of pre-contact Alberta may seem modest compared to those of cultures such as the Inca, Maya, and Aztec, who built huge temples and thousands of miles of roads and irrigation canals. But this is only true if one measures societies in terms of what one can see on the surface. Prairie Native cultures also had complex technologies that resulted from the collective labour of their peoples. As archaeologist Jack Brink, who led the team that reconstructed Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in southwestern Alberta, concluded:

Alone in that basin that day, I knew that I stood among the remains of a huge construction project involving the collection and careful placement of thousands of individual rocks. Each one was selected for certain size and weight and placed in a spot deemed just right by a team of people who must have discussed and debated how the map was to be made. What started off as simple clusters of stone had morphed into a mental blueprint of complex, group-based decision-making on a scale and for a purpose that had mostly eluded consideration by archaeologists, anthropologists, animal ecologists, and pretty much everyone else.5

Brink argues that the Europeans first in contact with the prairie Natives, wanting to minimize the achievements of the First Peoples, assumed that it must be easy to herd buffalo over cliffs and then crudely cut up their bodies to get food and clothing. In fact, it took years of invention and experimenting to determine where and by what means buffalo, which were wary animals, could be herded to cliffs from which a fall would kill them, with the least risk to humans in the process.

Equal ingenuity was needed in knowing what to do once the buffalo had jumped. Natives could only cut up and process the meat of a small number of buffalo, and not just any buffalo would do. They needed buffalo that had sufficient fat at that time of year to ensure a nutritious food supply for the people who had conducted the kill. To determine which animals were worth taking from a herd, they searched for hair over the eyes and on the horn, and for stripes on the spine. In addition to using buffalo meat for food, the people learned over time which parts of buffalo could be used to make such items as clothing, toboggans, cutlery, and powder flasks.


FIG 1-2 Dig from below Old Women’s Buffalo Jump near Cayley, Alberta. Glenbow Archives, B20-B-1.

Such knowledge, along with prairie, parklands, and northern peoples’ more general hunting expertise — as well as their understanding of horticulture, natural medicines, and social relations — did not develop overnight. Archaeological evidence shows that small groups of hunters lived on the prairies of Alberta at least thirteen thousand years ago when the glaciers of a long ice age were beginning to retreat. It is likely that they crossed an ice-free corridor from British Columbia through a section of the Rocky Mountains. By that time, they had developed projectiles with large fluted points suited to killing big game as well as smaller animals, but the mammoths and mastodons that they hunted soon disappeared, perhaps because of overhunting.6

The First Peoples of Alberta adapted by turning their attention to the bison of southern Alberta, developing bone and antler tools and experimenting with and perfecting their projectiles. Sturdier projectiles were needed since there was limited access to stone for resharpening and for changing broken segments. Archaeologist Trevor Peck explains the importance of the development of “Folsom points,” some 12,800 to 12,200 years ago:

The regularity and exquisite form of Folsom points suggests that knowledge transmission within tight kin-groups or working with designated craft specialists was an intricate part of an individual’s upbringing. Practices of stone conservation, the use of biface cores, multifunction stone tools, and Folsom point preforms as tools were all elegant adaptive responses to a highly mobile lifeway focused on hunting bison in stone-poor areas.7

Over time, there were more inventions and more adaptations. For example, archaeological remains suggest that sometime between 7200 and 6500 BC, Native peoples began fine-tuning darts to fit the spear thrower. The melting of glaciers brought greater population movements within Alberta and between that territory and other parts of North America. For example, an unearthed burial complex dating back to the period from 4900 to 4400 BP (2950 to 2450 BC) included copper and evidence of the use of stone boiling, which suggest the migration of peoples from elsewhere, probably the Great Lakes region, where stone boiling to extract bone grease had become common by the third millennium BC. The bone grease was used to preserve meat, reducing dependence on fresh meat and allowing communities to grow. Subsequently, there was a migration of Indigenous peoples from today’s American Midwest, as evidenced by discoveries of iron and copper projectile points as well as a style of pottery that was clearly introduced rather than developed locally.8

New technologies and techniques, whether brought by newcomers or developed locally, helped to make hunting more successful. The successive adoptions of the atlatl (spear thrower), the bow and arrow, and finally the buffalo pound were particularly important in enabling the growth of more and larger communities, first in southern Alberta and later in the northern reaches of the province. The buffalo pound was an enclosure that Native peoples built with logs and hides, generally at the bottom of a hill, to trap buffalo. Even though the animals were strong enough to crash through the wall that suddenly appeared before them, their instincts told them to stop in their tracks when confronted by a barrier. Thus trapped, they were speared by hunters who aimed through holes in the walls of the enclosure. The success of this method encouraged the bolder concept of the buffalo jump, in which Natives steered the buffalo along a path that ended not with a barrier but with a high cliff from which the stampeding buffalo fell to their death. Beginning in the first millennium BC, encampments of more than a hundred people were established at repeatedly used buffalo jump sites.9

Over time, the various Native peoples developed beliefs sacred to themselves about their origins and about the values that the Creator expected them to embody. They also developed a variety of rituals to appease the Creator and the spirits that the Creator had given to all living things. The Sun Dance, though its features varied among different peoples, was especially critical to prairie Aboriginals. It brought together related communities, allowed for the renewing of relationships, and offered young men the opportunity to demonstrate their bravery through a ceremony involving self-inflicted pain.10 Among the Blackfoot peoples, it was a multi-day event. An all-male warrior society chose the site, but the event was presided over by a holy woman. The highly ritualized Sun Dance was actually a series of religious ceremonies involving feasting, dancing, and singing. Each person carried a Sun Dance bundle in a rawhide bag filled with objects bestowed upon them at birth or for special achievements. Every item in the bag was made sacred by carrying it on vision fasts — fasts meant to induce a connection with the relevant spirits — and by learning special songs associated with that item. Individuals’ performances at a Sun Dance had to conform both with the special gifts bestowed upon them in their medicine bundle and with the rituals of the First Nation overall. Unsurprisingly, given the importance of the buffalo to the Plains peoples, the rituals of sacrifice and thanks to the buffalo spirits occupied as much time during the Sun Dance as the ceremonies devoted to the Sun Spirit.11

Labour was organized along lines that reflected the Aboriginal communities’ need to carefully balance the spirit world’s demands on the collective and on individuals. Everyone played a role in providing the community’s essential material goods, especially its food supply, but not everyone made the same contribution or received the same share of the total product. By the 1500s, the further south one might have travelled in Alberta, the more inequality one might have found, though compared to European societies of the time, all of the First Nations of Alberta were relatively egalitarian. The rigid divisions between European nobles and peasants, merchants and day labourers, and owners and slaves that had developed in Europe had some echoes among the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, but they were not replicated anywhere in Alberta.

Among the Dene peoples of northern Alberta, a class system did not develop in the pre-contact period. The Dene lived in small communities, usually of about twenty or thirty people, and harvested local resources including fish, small game, caribou, trees, and berries. They co-operated in the tasks necessary to maintain their communities, which relocated on a seasonal basis according to food sources. While these communities were largely self-sufficient and minimally involved in trade with other communities, they were generous to other Athabascan-speaking communities who came to them for help because nature had temporarily failed to provide their needs. In turn, they expected that when they were in trouble, aid would be reciprocated.

Intermarriage occurred among the communities within a region, and women and men took on different social roles. While men hunted the caribou, which often meant working at a distance from their homes, the women, who had the primary child care responsibility, stayed close to home, hunted smaller game, and harvested berries and other edible plants. Men manufactured boats and hunting tools, while women produced all the household goods and clothing. Though women played important social roles in Dene society, it appears that men sometimes exchanged or shared wives without their consent. When famine struck, it was female babies and only rarely male ones who might be subjected to infanticide. Still, as historian Kerry Abel notes, missionary and fur trader reports of women’s subordination to men as beasts of burden reflected European prejudices about the proper division of labour between the sexes rather than real exploitation. The European view that women were the “weaker sex” was not shared by the Dene, who regarded women as naturally stronger than men. In the sexual division of labour, women hauled to camp the carcasses of animals hunted by the men, butchered the meat, and transported all of the camp members’ possessions when camp was moved. “The available evidence suggests that the Dene considered men’s and women’s work to be different,” writes Abel, “but not of relatively higher or lower value.” 12

The Cree of the parklands were similarly egalitarian despite the fact that the somewhat milder environment in which they lived allowed them to form communities of fifty to a hundred people. The women constructed tipis from caribou or moose hides, which the family set up and dismantled as they followed the seasonal paths of moose, caribou, beaver, and bear. Sturdy birchbark canoes made by the men provided the major means of transport. Cree communities, like those of the Dene, shared their wealth with sister communities who had suffered a bad year. The bonds among social groups were strengthened each summer when large numbers of communities gathered in a central location to renew ties of friendship that might also be called upon to gather forces against perceived enemies.13

While the Sioux and the Blackfoot of southern Alberta were once egalitarian as well, their societies became somewhat less equal as they became buffalo-hunting peoples. The intricacies of planning a buffalo hunt and the need for prompt selection of buffalo, quick storage of meat, and longer-term preparation of the many products that could be made from buffalo led to at least some specialization of labour and some rewards for those seen to have higher status within the buffalo society. Chiefs of the hunt and of warfare, along with shamans (the religious leaders or diviners), were at the apex of the social hierarchy. Their superior position within the society was reflected in their dwellings, which were larger than those of other families, and in their having more than one wife. Among the Blackfoot, however, the chief positions were not hereditary; furthermore, the chief’s credibility depended upon his ability to ensure that all members of the tribe were taken care of.14

The Plains people learned to be flexible in order to ensure their survival. As Plains scholar Frances Kaye observes, they “countered climate variability with geographic mobility.” She adds, “Indigenous people did not follow the buffalo herds — rather they anticipated buffalo movement and stationed themselves where experience told them the bison would be moving. Or, if their forecast was wrong, they moved towards alternate or supplementary food sources such as deer, elk, berries, or prairie turnip.”15

Just as work and the products of labour were largely shared within the pre-contact societies of Alberta, looking after those who fell on misfortune was viewed as the responsibility of the whole community. Fur trader and explorer David Thompson, writing about the Cree, noted:


FIG 1-3 A drawing, ca. 1854, of a buffalo pound. Buffalo were herded between funnel-shaped barricades into a circular enclosure, often located at the bottom of a hill. Thus trapped, the buffalo were speared or shot by hunters stationed on the outer side of the enclosure’s walls. At the centre of the enclosure stood a ritual flag. Glenbow Archives, NA-3225-4.

These acts that pass between man and man for generous charity and kind compassion in civilized society are no more than what is every day practiced by these Savages as acts of common duty; is any one unsuccessful in the chase, has he lost his little all by some accident, he is sure to be relieved by the others to the utmost of their power.16

Although Thompson used the common racist epithet “Savages” to describe Aboriginal people, he had a great deal of respect for their society, as did many of the fur traders. He was hardly alone in raising doubts about the idea of European societies representing a higher form of civilization. American photographer Walter McClintock, living among the Blackfeet in Montana, who shared an ancestral culture with the Blackfoot of southern Alberta, wrote: “Their unselfish and patriotic lives, devoted to the welfare of their tribe, rise before me in strange and painful contrast with the rich and powerful of my race.”17

Sharing with those who had suffered misfortune applied not only within a community but across all social groups within a First Nation. Among the Dene, for example, while each community had its designated hunting grounds, there was an understanding that any group that had been unable in a given year to meet its needs from within its customary hunting areas could hunt in another tribe’s territory. It had to request the right to hunt outside its traditional territory, but such requests were ritual and were always granted as long as the solicited tribe was not also short of food.18

Some European commentators presented northern peoples as callous regarding old people and the sick, since the survival of a community sometimes required them to leave an old or sick person behind as they changed camp with the seasons in search of food. But oral tradition, backed by evidence from European observers, stresses that abandonment occurred only after heroic efforts to preserve the life of someone who could not contribute to the common good. “When the explorer Ross met the Netsilik people a century and a half ago,” writes Keith J. Crowe, “he saw Iliktat, an old man who was being pulled on a sleigh by his family across a difficult land. Early in this century Chief Robuscan of Abitibi carried his very heavy crippled wife on his back in their travels for almost twenty years.”19

Sharing was also the norm for the Cree and the Blackfoot. While each Cree community had some territories under its control, each region also contained common hunting, trapping, and gathering areas, as well as “medicinal lands that we shared [sacred lands], peace territorial lands that we designated for the shelter and safety of all people.”20 The Blackfoot societies also practised reciprocity in the annual Sun Dance. Though a chief might have more material goods than others within the group, “a man aspiring to become a leader sought to outshine his competitors by his feasts and presents given to others, even at the cost of self-impoverishment. … Care of the poor was one of the recognized responsibilities of the band chief. Should he fail in this duty, his leadership position was severely jeopardized.”21


During the First Nations period in Alberta, the organization of work and the distribution of the products of work were based on sophisticated and ever-evolving social relations that were undergirded by Native spirituality. Natives carved out communities in which each individual contributed to the collective’s well-being and which could in turn count on related groups for support in hard times. This achievement is evidenced in the fact that these communities proved able right to the end of the pre-contact period to govern themselves without developing formal state-level institutions of governance. Ironically, the governments and settlers who looked down on the Natives interpreted the lack of formal state institutions and formal churches as revealing “primitivism” among Canada’s First Peoples. We now recognize how ethnocentric their views were. But many of the earliest Europeans in contact with Native peoples came to respect them and to recognize the complexities of their societies and their organization of work. Our next chapter, which deals with both the fur-trading period and the early settlement of Alberta, demonstrates that the European fur traders found much to admire in First Nations societies and that the fur trade represented a partnership, though not always an equal one, of Natives and Europeans. In contrast, the settlement period, though superficially a negotiated partnership, was for the most part simply an example of European imperialism that resulted in the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples and the attempted erasure of their cultures, which had evolved over millennia.


FIG 2-1 It was customary for Plains Native women to carry a baby in a cradle board, or papoose, on their shoulders or back, which allowed women to perform their many chores inside and outside the home while also attending to their babies. Provincial Archives of Alberta, P149.




Charles the Second establish confirme and declare by these Presentes and that by the same name of Governor & Company of Adventurers of England Tradeing into Hudsons Bay they shall have perpetuall succession And that they and theire successors by the name of Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Tradeing into Hudsons Bay bee and at all tymes hereafter shall bee persons able and capable in Law to have purchase receive possesse enjoy and reteyne Landes Rentes priviledges libertyes Jurisdiccions Franchyses and hereditamentes of what kinde nature and quality soever they bee to them and theire Successors. …

Doe give grant and confirme unto the said Governor and Company and theire successors the sole Trade and Commerce of all those Seas Streightes Bayes Rivers Lakes Creekes and Soundes in whatsoever Latitude they shall bee that lie within the entrance of the Streightes commonly called Hudsons Streightes together with all the Landes and Terriroryes upon the Countryes Coastes and confynes of the Seas Bayes Lakes Rivers Creekes and Soundes aforesaid that are not already actually possessed by or granted to any of our Subjectes or possessed by the Subjectes of any other Christian Prince or State … and all Mynes Royall as well discovered as not discovered of Gold Silver Gemms and pretious Stones to bee found or discovered within the Territoryes Lymittes and Places aforesaid And that the said Land bee from henceforth reckoned and reputed as one of our Plantacions or Colonyes in America called Rupert’s Land.1

In such flowery language, King Charles II declared in 1670, with a stroke of the pen, that all the lands draining into Hudson Bay — a vast expanse the extent of which he could hardly have imagined — belonged to his cousin Prince Rupert and the prince’s associates. He called these unknown lands Rupert’s Land in honour of his first cousin. In this manner, the British, who would have no direct contact with anyone who lived in what is now Alberta for almost another century, claimed the land and resources that ancient peoples had cultivated for thirteen thousand years. It was just one example of the colonial mentality that resulted in Europeans seizing control of the Americas in the name of Christianity and civilization, though mostly to indulge an insatiable desire for the riches of what they called “the New World.”2 The Company of Adventurers — or, as it eventually became known, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) — was destined to become the first capitalist venture in the province of Alberta. Its rival, the North West Company (NWC), would emerge later, operating from 1779 to 1821.

Initial relations between Native peoples and the Europeans who came to the Americas from the sixteenth century onwards varied. Many of the peoples of the Americas faced enslavement by European conquerors, who wanted captive labour to exploit mines and cultivable lands. The Portuguese, who had pioneered the European slave trade in Africa in the sixteenth century, enslaved the Native peoples of today’s Brazil, slaughtering those who rose up in resistance. When Native deaths from exhaustion reduced the colonial labour force, the Portuguese simply replaced them with African slaves.3 The Spanish made slave labour in the mines and in the encomiendas (plantations) the key to their riches, with devastating consequences for the survival of the conquered Aboriginal populations. Writer Edouardo Galeano, describing the exhausting work of the Bolivian miners in Potosí, the largest silver mine in the world, notes that they were forced to live within the mine for months at a time while working exhausting hours with toxic substances, and that “eight million Indian corpses” were the product. “The bleeding of the New World became an act of charity, an argument for the faith.”4

By the 1540s, the Spanish had wiped out the Arawak of the Caribbean. They went on to reduce the Native population of Mexico from about 27 million in 1519 to 1 million in 1600; in the same period, they decimated the Peruvian Natives, whose population dropped from 7 million to 1.75 million.5 Historian G.V. Scammell observes: “In short, in an unequalled record of genocide, the Spaniards had destroyed about 90 per cent of their new subjects in the course of a century. This they had in part accomplished, as a wide body of testimony confirms, by what a royal official described as ‘unheard of cruelties and tortures.’”6

As British colonies were established in what is now the United States, the African slave trade came to provide most of the labour required by plantation owners in the South, though some Natives were enslaved as well. In New England, Kentucky, and Tennessee, among other areas of settlement where the British newcomers did not practise labour-intensive agriculture, Natives were viewed as nuisances rather than a potential labour force. They were chased from their traditional lands, which caused many bloody wars as they attempted to assert their sovereignty and either disperse the newcomers or compel them to respect Native control.7 Throughout this period of conquest, for all Native peoples in contact with the Europeans, European diseases to which they had no immunities proved devastating.8 But it is important to note that disease as such does not explain the longer-term decimation of the original peoples. Comparative studies of the impact of disease on Native groups demonstrate that when a Native group remained able to control its food supply and to negotiate its relations with the Europeans, a short-term demographic upset was turned around in several generations. European exploitation and robbery of resources, not European germs, were responsible for genocides and near-genocides of Native peoples in the Americas.9

Initially, the experiences of the Natives with Europeans in much of what became Canada were somewhat more positive than those of Natives in the rest of the Americas. There were no early discoveries of gold and silver in Canada, and the climate was not suited to plantation crops or, in most areas, to extensive single-family farming, given the European technology of the period. The main riches of interest to the French, the first Europeans to establish permanent settlements in Canada, came from ocean fishing, which they did themselves without conflict with Native fishers, and the fur trade. The HBC was similarly interested only in furs and not in settlement.

The fur traders had neither option of ignoring or enslaving Native peoples. The Europeans in the small fur-trade posts and settlements lacked the labour power and the geographic knowledge required to trap and prepare furs for the lucrative European markets. For the same reason that the Spanish enslaved Natives — the need of their labour power — the French and the British involved in the fur trade formed partnerships with First Peoples in lands rich in furs. The Natives quickly learned to bargain shrewdly for the European goods that they wanted in trade for their furs. Samuel de Champlain, the fur trader responsible for the establishment of Quebec in 1608, complained three years later that the Natives “waited until several ships had arrived in order to get our wares more cheaply. Thus those people are mistaken who think that by coming first they can do better business; for the Indians are now too sharp and crafty.”10


FIG 2-2 Painting by Frederic Remington showing the interior of one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur-trading posts, 1886. Glenbow Archives, NA-77-1.

Generally, the fur trade in a region followed a predictable pattern. First, while furs remained abundant, mutual respect characterized relations between European fur buyers, on the one hand, and Native trappers and Natives who served as trade intermediaries between trapper and buyer, on the other. The Native peoples drove as hard a bargain as they could for the products of their labour, incorporating the goods that they received in trade from the Europeans into their traditional material and spiritual lives.11 While some Natives succumbed to the blandishments of the Roman Catholic missionaries and became Christians, most remained skeptical of a religion that contradicted their own and offered no guidance for trapping animals or gathering plants.12 Eventually, though, supplies of furs diminished, sometimes along with game, which had been sufficient for the Natives but could not supply the needs of both Natives and Europeans in an area. As their resources dwindled, Natives could no longer negotiate the terms of trade with Europeans; thus, some of them became dependent on fur buyers and on government officials for credit and for goods. A return to old ways of living was possible for some groups when fur supplies or distant markets collapsed: Natives in northern Canada, for example, seemed to simply return to the status quo ante for several generations after the fur trade in their region declined. But usually European agricultural settlements were established in the wake of a shattered fur trade, and pressure was put on Native peoples to settle on small reserves while white settlers took over their former lands.

With respect to the Prairie region, historical geographer Arthur Ray notes:

In spite of the fact that necessity for cooperation prevented any deliberate attempts to destroy the Indians and their cultures by hostile reactions, their traditional ways were transformed nonetheless. The fur trade favoured economic specialization. … Ultimately the resource bases upon which these specialized economies developed were destroyed due to over-exploitation. Significantly for Western Canada, this occurred before extensive European settlement began. Therefore, out of economic necessity, the Indians agreed to settle on reserves with the promise that the government would look after their welfare and help them make yet another adjustment to changing economic conditions.13

Such a sad result would not have been predictable when Alberta Natives first began to trade with Europeans since their initial involvement was indirect. As various areas in eastern Canada became overtrapped, Native intermediaries searched for furs in areas further west and north. By the early eighteenth century, furs that Alberta-based Natives traded with intermediaries had become part of the international fur-trading industry. But Alberta Natives had yet to encounter any Europeans; according to archaeologist Trevor Peck, the European goods that Plains peoples acquired before their direct contact with Europeans, including guns, were simply made use of alongside their traditional goods in ways that had minimal impact on their existing cultural practices.14 Sometime between 1725 and 1750, the Blackfoot acquired horses from First Nations in the United States who traded with the Spanish.15 Horses became incorporated into the buffalo hunt and the social and religious practices of the Blackfoot.16 The Cree, who were allies of the Blackfoot in pre-fur trade days, also acquired horses.

By the mid-1700s, both the French fur traders, headquartered in Montreal, and the English, based in York Factory on Hudson Bay, were attempting to establish relations with Natives in the West so as to reduce the role of the intermediaries in the trade and thus increase their potential profits. The first European known to have set foot in Alberta was Anthony Henday, a labourer with the HBC at York Factory. Accompanied by Cree guides, he came west in the hope of establishing relations with the Blackfoot and to encourage them to bring furs to York Factory or other HBC forts. The Natives were largely indifferent to his efforts since having more European goods hardly seemed worth the risk of lengthy treacherous voyages, a view generally shared by all Alberta Native communities.17

But after the British defeated the French in the Seven Years War (1756-63) and the French ceded control of Canada to the British, Anglo-American fur traders who settled in Montreal, in alliance with Anglo-American traders on the frontier, began establishing fur-trading posts throughout the West, including what is today Alberta. The allies formed the North West Company (NWC) in 1779, uniting the efforts of most of the free traders who defied the HBC’s monopoly. Native groups for whom a visit to a fur-trading post was only days away down river were generally happy to become part of the trade. While the Blackfoot continued for some time to reject any role as trappers, they proved quite willing to prepare and sell pemmican — dried buffalo meat seasoned with berries — to the traders who lacked their own sources of food. The ability of Native peoples in the interior to trade with the Montreal-based firms forced the HBC, which was enraged that Britain would not enforce the monopoly granted to the company in 1670 over the western trade, to also establish western posts. The result was not only a series of competing posts, often close together, across the West, but also frequent violence between HBC and NWC traders.



FIG 2-3 A sketch by Frederic Remington of a Canadian voyageur, with rifle and axe. The sketch appeared in Harper’s New Weekly in March of 1892. Glenbow Archives, NA-1406-5.

The first fur-trading post in Alberta was Pond’s Fort, established by Peter Pond in 1778 on Lake Athabasca. Fort Chipewyan followed in 1788. Soon there were also posts in today’s Edmonton region. Two posts, Fort Augustus, built by the NWC, and Edmonton House (also known as Fort Edmonton), the HBC response, were constructed in 1795 near what is today Fort Saskatchewan. Fort Edmonton was moved to the site of today’s Rossdale Flats, just south of downtown Edmonton, in 1801, then briefly to Smoky Lake in 1810. Returned to Rossdale Flats in 1812, the fort was moved to the higher ground of the site of today’s legislature in the 1830s because of the constant threat of floods on the Flats. In total, about sixty forts were built in Alberta between 1778 and Confederation in 1867, though some only lasted a few years.

The presence of fur-trading posts in their region gave an incentive to large numbers of Alberta Native communities to participate in the fur trade. By the 1790s, even the Blackfoot, once so reluctant to trade with the Europeans, brought wolf and fox skins to trading posts on the northern fringe of their hunting territories. Before the HBC and NWC merged in 1821, Natives took advantage of the companies’ competition to get the best prices possible for their products. Even after the merger, Natives traded with American free traders when they could not get better prices from the Canadian monopoly fur-trading company. The change from a subsistence to a trading economy impacted all of the First Nations, though throughout the years of the fur trade, they were social actors, not victims like Natives elsewhere in the Americas who had become slaves or landless and confined to small reserves. The Alberta First Nations retained many of their core beliefs. Even when smallpox, diphtheria, and other diseases killed thousands at a time, they continued to have faith in the medicine of their traditional healers.18

Social work professor and Blackfoot scholar Betty Bastien, a member of the Piikani First Nation, writes that the Blackfoot, during the fur-trade period, adopted some of the Europeans’ materialistic values. “The relationship with the bison,” she writes, “shifted from a ceremonial and subsistence relationship to one of commercial use.”19 American demand for buffalo robes fuelled large buffalo kills in the Canadian West early in the nineteenth century. But a bigger threat to maintaining buffalo herds arose in the 1860s when industrialists discovered that buffalo hides provided excellent belts for power-transmission systems.20 While Native peoples participated in the slaughter of the buffalo, by the 1860s their refusal would have made little difference since white American buffalo hunters were also engaged in the lucrative hunt for buffalo hides.

Initially, the Native peoples who took part in the trade participated mainly as independent providers of furs or pemmican, or as middlemen. The NWC and HBC employed mainly whites to operate their trading posts, to build boats, and to ship furs to Montreal and York Factory, respectively. The NWC used primarily French-Canadian voyageurs, following in the footsteps of the French companies that had been forced out of the fur trade after France was routed from Canada. In 1802, the company employed about fifteen hundred French-Canadians, mainly as seasonal contract workers.21 In response, the HBC, beginning in the 1770s, hired a large group of experienced boatmen from the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland.

Though the “servants” of the company accepted the right of their masters to rule, they expected their bosses to demonstrate both compassion and common sense. When they felt that instead their supervisors had been cruel and stupid, they occasionally revolted, often as individuals but sometimes collectively. Some forms of protest involved working slowly or inefficiently, deliberately mistranslating what their master was trying to convey to a Native or vice versa, or, if there seemed few alternatives, deserting their master, though that violated the terms of their contract. In turn, masters often responded with intimidation and threats, and the withholding of alcohol and feasts. Occasionally, despite the tight job market, a company would fire a worker. The NWC, for example, faced with a strike in Rainy Lake in 1794, managed to persuade a number of the workers to return to work. The company then promptly fired the strike leaders.22

The Orkneymen of the HBC collectively demanded higher wages in 1805, and the company, following accepted capitalist principles of the period, fired the instigators and replaced them with another group of workers.23 They turned to Natives, mostly mixed-bloods, whom they paid the existing wage but hired on purely seasonal contracts.24 The lack of Native worker solidarity with the Orkney workers was unsurprising since the Orkneymen, like other Europeans in the region, made no effort to treat Natives as equals or to insist that the company hire them on the same terms as whites.

While the fur trade may have been a partnership of Europeans and Natives, there was never any doubt in the minds of the whites in charge of the HBC about who should rule the roost. The company, as reorganized in 1821, had a clear social class structure, which, in turn, was based on race and gender. At the apex of the company was the governor appointed by the leading shareholders in Britain. Then came the chief factors, who supervised trade districts, and beneath them, the chief traders, who ran the main trading posts. These individuals were incorporated into the company as partners and received, between them, 40 percent of company profits, with the non-working investors receiving the remaining profits. From 1821 to 1833, chief factors earned average profits of 800 pounds a year while the chief traders earned 400 pounds. Clerks, who earned salaries of about 100 pounds a year, were next in the hierarchy, followed by assistant clerks earning half that amount. No First Nations person was ever appointed to a position of clerk or higher. Only a few mixed-bloods with influential fathers broke the racial barrier. In 1821, none of the 25 chief factors of the company were individuals known to have Native blood, while only two chief traders of 28 and 16 clerks of 140 were mixed-blood.25


From the earliest days of interaction between European fur traders and Native peoples, some of the former lived among the latter and, to a degree, adopted their ways. Many European men chose to live with or marry Native women. For Native women, the decision to live with a European man was fraught with dangers, including abandonment. But to some, it offered the opportunity to live a somewhat easier, sedentary life with more material goods. Though the HBC, during its first century, attempted to prevent its servants from having intercourse with Native women and having mixed-race families, the NWC recognized early on that such marriages cemented the bonds between the company and particular Native communities. By the time Alberta Natives were drawn into the fur trade, marriages of European-origin traders and Native women were the rule rather than the exception. Until the churches had established themselves firmly in western Canada, such marriages followed Native customary practices.


FIG 2-4 Métis family, Fort Vermilion, 1900. Provincial Archives of Alberta, B7256.

Racist sentiment pervaded European-Native relations, including those within the HBC. While marriages in the early period of the trade in western Canada were between European men and First Nations women, a prejudice eventually developed against women who had only “Indian” blood. Mixed-race (Métis) women became the valued marriage partners because they had some white blood, and, according to historian Sylvia Van Kirk, “with the emergence of the mixed-blood wife, the trend was the formation of lasting and devoted marital relationships.”26 Although traders viewed life at the remote trading posts as too rough to appeal to white women, that view changed as communities such as Manitoba’s Red River Settlement developed agriculture and expanded their populations and institutions. Once the traders and settlers believed that the West had become “settled” enough to bring white women there, they decided that mixed-race women were not good enough for them. In short, a hardening of racial lines occurred as the fur trade became more established, and those lines became even more rigid as the fur trade gave way to agricultural and urban settlements.27

Whether First Nations or Métis, Native women played an essential, unpaid, and largely unmentioned role in ensuring the profitability of the fur-trade companies. Arthur Ray summarizes some of those contributions: “They produced and repaired essential footwear (mocassins and snowshoes), chopped wood, collected canoe-birch supplies, made canoe sails, provided tanned hides and pack cords, re-dressed furs for shipment to London, grew vegetables, snared hare, and caught and preserved fish.”28

The offspring of marriages of European men and Native women sometimes found a home in the First Nations societies of their mothers, and a few integrated themselves, with many difficulties, into the European societies of their fathers. Many, however, viewed themselves as a distinct people because they had ties as individuals to two very different social groups. The French-speaking Métis — who had served as boatmen, guides, and interpreters for the French as they ventured west of Quebec and served similar roles for the North West Company — developed their own clothes, Red River carts for the buffalo hunt, and their own language, a mix of Cree and French, which they called michif. While they contracted their labour to the fur-trading companies, the limited careers that the companies offered them encouraged them to remain freelancers, copying the Plains Natives in filling many of their subsistence needs with the buffalo. The Métis began to see themselves as a “nation” when the first leaders of the Red River Settlement, a settlement associated with the HBC’s efforts to provision their posts more cheaply, attempted to interfere with their access to buffalo.29 Though their resistance to the settlers was encouraged by the NWC rivals of the HBC, the Métis acted in their own rather than company interests as they challenged the rights of the settlers to limit Métis livelihoods. In 1816, a standoff at Seven Oaks, an area now part of the City of Winnipeg, resulted in the Métis forcing the dispersal of the first settlement in the area. Though outnumbered three to one, the Métis lost only one of their warriors while the HBC forces lost twenty-one.30

The sense of Métis nationhood strengthened in the 1840s when the HBC tried to enforce its monopoly over furs and pemmican, and to control supplies and prices for both by penalizing Métis and First Nations people who traded with free traders. A showdown came in 1849, when the HBC — which ran everything in the Red River Colony, including the courts — jailed and charged four Métis with illegal trading. As three hundred armed Métis gathered outside the company court, Guillaume Sayer, the first of the four to be tried, pleaded guilty but argued that he had traded with a relative and believed that he was exercising his customary rights. The jury recommended clemency and the judge, concerned about potential violence, imposed no sentence. The other three prisoners were released without a trial. The Métis interpreted these events as a vindication of their right to trade with whom they pleased, and the HBC subsequently made few efforts to prove them wrong.31

English-speaking mixed-bloods often intermarried with the Métis, but also often formed communities separate from the Métis as well as from their English fathers and First Nations mothers. Bungi, the mix of English, Gaelic, and Cree spoken by this group of mixed-bloods, marked them off from other groups. These communities often felt caught in the middle of European-Métis clashes since English-speaking mixed-bloods seemed pulled between identification with other English-speaking people versus other mixed-bloods.32

Native (First Nations and Métis) people formed an important part of the working class in the fur trade. We have already noted the significant unpaid contributions of Native wives to the functioning of trading posts and the trade more broadly. Native men — apart from being free-enterprising providers of furs and pemmican, for which they received a negotiated rate per pound rather than a wage — also did many of the “grunt” jobs within the fur-trading companies. Foreshadowing the future of capitalism in Alberta from that time to the present day, only a small group of workers, almost exclusively white, had any job security. Clerks and surgeons, and a small group of tradespeople had contracts of three to five years, which were often renewed; this provided guaranteed wages for set periods. But boatmen, guides, interpreters, and canoe builders, who over time were increasingly mainly Native, had only seasonal contracts and could be barred from future contracts if they proved militant.

That did not always prevent militancy, however. In the 1850s, Native transport workers, led by Métis, organized a number of mutinies in an effort to force the HBC to provide better working conditions. While wages were at issue, more important demands were that the company provide sturdier, easier-to-navigate boats, along with smaller loads and better food on the boats. The boatmen were tired of dealing with dangerous currents in worn-out, overloaded boats. The company, unwilling to yield to such demands but aware that it could not easily replace its Native workforce, gradually switched to steam-powered boats to reduce the number of transport workers required.33


The Natives’ successes as both entrepreneurs and workers contributed to a growing sense in the Hudson’s Bay Company by the early 1860s that fur trading in western Canada had become unprofitable. Demand for the company’s product had fallen, and many areas previously rich in furs had been tapped out. Showing little concern for the fate of its Native “partners,” this capitalist enterprise sold out in 1863 to new London financial owners, who focused not on the fur trade but on the company’s alleged control of western Canada’s land base. Based on the original charter and Britain’s colonial view that Aboriginals had no legal control over land except for partial control over lands that Britain reserved for their use, the HBC became a land speculation machine first and a fur-trading operation a distant second.34

The HBC view of western Canada was shared by the Fathers of Confederation, mainly capitalists in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic colonies who viewed the Canada that they created as a potential commercial giant. They wanted it to follow the US model in which the original states in the east captured lands further west from Natives and Mexicans alike and turned them into successful commercial farming areas that became the market for the goods produced by eastern manufacturers. In this model, traditional Native societies based on hunting, trapping, and fishing stood in the way of social progress.35


FIG 2-5 Buffalo bones awaiting shipment at Medicine Hat, 1885. Bones were gathered then loaded onto railroad cars and shipped to factories in the east. There, the bones were ground and used in refining sugar or for fertilizer. Provincial Archives of Alberta, B10102.

In 1869, the HBC ceded political control over the lands that it had been granted by Britain one year short of two centuries earlier. The Government of Canada paid the company 300,000 pounds (about 1.5 million dollars) for its land, the same price that the HBC owners had paid to buy the company in 1863. But more importantly, the government, as part of the bargain, gave the HBC control over 5 percent of Rupert’s Land, which, after the building of the CPR, would yield the HBC a profit of almost 200 million dollars.36 The Government of Canada — maintaining the fiction that the Government of Britain, not the people who had lived in western Canada for thirteen thousand years, was the owner — did not at the time offer the First Peoples one penny for their lands.