Vancouver Sun

Trappers struggle to keep Fur Table auction alive


WINNIPEG — At 5:30 a.m., when Lane Boles opens the doors to the hall at St. Joseph’s Ukraine Catholic Church in the hardscrabb­le resource town of Thompson, Man., 60 trappers are already waiting to get in. One man had been there since 4 a.m., no doubt grateful for the unseasonab­ly warm temperatur­es of -10 C.

Heavy with furs, the trappers are assigned a number, and given a slip that catalogues what they have to sell. Their number is called, the buyers make their bids — and a tradition that goes back to the founding of New France goes on.

The Thompson Fur Table is the only auction of its kind in North America; although it is only three and a half decades old, trappers throughout Manitoba and Canada’s north depend on it for their livelihood. They brave ice roads and poor conditions to converge in Thompson each December, more than 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, where private buyers and representa­tives from the two main fur auction houses in North America — the Fur Harvesters Auction and the North America Fur Auction — bid on their pelts.

“It’s a cultural phenomenon,” said Alan Herscovici, executive vice-president of the Fur Council of Canada. “It’s exciting. It’s part of our history and heritage. It has to do with the founding of our country.”

But fur prices are down, and the event costs the Manitoba Trappers Associatio­n more than $13,000 to run, a prohibitiv­e cost for the group. These may be the last days of the annual event being hosted in what is colloquial­ly known as the hub of the north.

Most of the furs sold in Thompson and other smaller auctions in North America end up in China, Russia, or South Korea; the pelts range from pine marten to wolverine to the Canadian beaver, from fishers to weasels to coyotes.

Last month’s Thompson Fur Table brought in $239,421 — a steep drop blamed both on declining prices and a bad year in the traps.

Buyers paid out $618,852 in 2013. The year before that, $683,559 worth of furs were bought, a record. Herscovici said the price drop is simply the market correcting itself, and maintains that, “the last time fur was as popular as it is today was back in the ’70s and ’80s.

“Farmed mink pelts are often the benchmark for fur prices,” said Herscovici. “In 1992, following the recession of the late ‘80s, that number dropped to $20 per pelt. But since, casual fur has become popular again, and prices for farmed mink have reached and surpassed $100.

When in ’ 92 there were 40 designers using fur in their designs, now there are about 500 using it for things like scarves, trim, and other accessorie­s.”

But that price has since dropped. “It was warm in China last year, and with what’s going on in Russia and the ruble, the price for farmed mink has sunk back down to about $50,” he said. Marten fur sold for $50 per pelt at last month’s fur table, down more than $10 from the year before. It’s easier to catch than other, more exotic animals; 3,712 marten furs were sold over the two days.

For many of Canada’s 70,000 trappers, it is a livelihood. The fur trade contribute­s nearly $1 billion to Canada’s economy annually. And it does so over the sale of about two million pelts, half wild, the other half farmed.

The Thompson Fur Table was formed in 1979, when the then-Progressiv­e Conservati­ve premier of Manitoba, Sterling Lyon, decided to revive a dying wild-pelt industry, and to ensure trappers receive the highest possible price.

Thirty-five years later, it is the only such auction remaining in North America, where representa­tives from larger outfits and independen­t buyers bid on trappers’ furs.

The Thompson auction not only awards competitiv­e prices to northern trappers, it allows them to do so without having to travel long distances or in adverse weather conditions.

Boles, MTA’s director- atlarge, said the associatio­n’s revenues from the auction still does not cover its costs.

The Pas, a city of about 5,000 south of Thompson, covets the fur table — it has offered to host the event and cover its costs.

The Fur Table’s fate rests in part on the city’s imminent budget talks, says Thompson Mayor Dennis Fenske, who believes the city will do what it can to keep the tradition alive.

 ??  ?? The Thompson Fur Table, the only fur auction of its kind in North America, may face closure if it can’t find a way to cover its costs.
The Thompson Fur Table, the only fur auction of its kind in North America, may face closure if it can’t find a way to cover its costs.

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