Chanson du voyageur

Each February, the Festival du Voyageur is held in Winnipeg, celebrating the joie de vivre of the early pioneers in Canada’s West. This year’s festival will run from February 13 to 22, and features 130 artists showcased at Voyageur Park as well as nine other locations in St. Boniface, such as the Franco-Manitoban acts Chic Gamine, Carmen Campagne, Marioseé, and Ça Claque, besides the traditional fiddlers, jiggling and crafts and trades demonstrations. There will also be games, snow forts, slides and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Louis Riel Day on February 16 will be marked by special events.

The voyageur, the backbone of the fur trade for almost 300 years, has taken on  near-mythic stature in Canada. Descriptions of their feats and endurance are found throughout accounts of the history of the nation. They were expert woodsmen, canoe handlers and traders — men of French ancestry who searched the wilds of North America for fur-bearing animals and at the same time helped tame a continent. Voyageurs ventured from Montreal to Louisiana, up the Mississippi River and as far north and west as the Columbia, Athabaska and MacKenzie rivers. In the West, the voyageurs were at first employees of the Montreal-based  North West Company, a rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company established by charter of King Charles II in 1670. The NWC, or Nor’Westers, were a coalition of independent fur traders, who challenged the monopoly of the HBC from 1780 to 1821, the year the two companies merged. 

Following the merger, the voyageurs entered the service of the HBC, though the golden era of the voyageur is said to have ended when the NWC was incorporated into the HBC. After the merger, the dominant mode of water freight transportation for the HBC became the York boat manned by mostly Metis oarsmen.

George Simpson, governor-in-chief of the HBC, who was given the nickname “The Little Emperor” for his near dictatorial powers in Western Canada, toured his kingdom using the best voyageurs available.

On a typical tour, his voyageurs rose by two o’clock in the morning, paddled for six hours, ate breakfast, and then paddled until eight o’clock in the evening with only a 10-minute break for lunch.

“The inland navigation from Montreal, by which the North-West business is carried on, is perhaps the most extensive of any in the known world,” wrote Benjamin and Joseph Frobisher, fur-traders from Montreal, in 1784, “but is only practical for canoes, on account of the great number of carrying places (portages) ...

They said that 500 men made the journey from Montreal to the interior: “... one half of which are occupied in the transport of goods from Montreal to Grand Prairie, in canoes of about four tons burthen, navigated by 8 to 10 men, and the other half are employed to take such goods forward to every post in the interior country to the extent of 1,000 to 2,000 miles (1,600 to 3,200 kilometres) and upwards, from Lake Superior, in canoes of about one and one-half burthen, made expressly for the inland service, and navigated by 4 to 5 men only, according to the places of their destination.”

The summer meeting at Grand Portage, along the western edge of Lake Superior — later moved to Fort Kaministiqua (Fort William) because Grand Portage was found to be in American territory — became an important social and business occasion for the Nor’Westers. Some 2,000 senior partners, clerks and employees of the company, along with others representing the population of the North-West  gathered for the annual rendez-vous. A highlight was the ball attended by company officials, Metis and First Nations people.

“No men are  ... more capable of enduring hardship, or more good humoured under privations,” wrote American author Washington Irving, who is famous for writing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle.  “Never are they so happy as when on long and rough expeditions, toiling up rivers or coasting lakes ...

“They are dexterous boatmen, vigorous and adroit with the oar and paddle, and will row from morning into night without a murmur.”

Washington, like other writers of his day, sang the praise of the voyageurs for their ability to break into song while paddling.

Henry Martin Robinson, an American who came to the Red River Settlement in 1870 to be editor of the New Nation newspaper under the direction of Louis Riel — Riel eventually fired him for being an American annexationist — romanticized the voyageur in his book, The Great Fur Land.

“Those who have not seen it can have but a faint idea of the picturesque effects these passing canoe-brigades. Sweeping suddenly round some promontory in the wilderness, they burst unexpectedly upon the view, like some weird phantom or mirage. At the same moment the wild  yet simple chansons of the voyageurs strike upon the ear ... Sung with the force of hundred voices; which, rising and falling in soft cadences in the distance, as if  borne lightly upon the breeze, then more steadily as they approach swells out in the rich tones of many mellow voices, and bursts at last into a long, enthusiastic chorus.

George Bryce, an historian and cleric who came to Winnipeg in 1871, also witnessed the voyageurs  commencing their journeys westward with a Chanson du voyageur. According to Bryce, the voyageur song inspired Thomas Moore, an Irish poet, on a visit to Canada to write the Canadian Boat Song. The fact they broke into song at every opportunity is perhaps a reflection of the drudgery they endured guiding a “north” canoe of about 7.5 metres in length and carrying a crew and cargo of approximately 1,565 kilograms to the fur-trade outposts. Each canoe carried about 20 pieces of goods, each weighing 40.5 kilograms. A five-canoe brigade was capable of carrying 436.2 kilograms of goods, which may have included tobacco, gunpowder, salt, rice, barley, butter, greases, prunes, flour, kettles, clothing, paper, hatchets, saws, nails, and guns.

To make the journey from the Winnipeg River to Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River, each canoe carried two 40.5-kilogram (90-pound) bags of pemmican (dried and pounded buffalo meat mixed with fat). This would have to make due as the food for the voyageurs until they reached the prairies and buffalo could be hunted for fresh meat, or more pemmican could be obtained from local Métis or First Nations people.

“Their mode of life rendered them healthy, hardy, and good-humoured, with a strong dash of recklessness — perhaps too much of it — in some younger men,” wrote Robert Ballantyne (1848). He said the voyageurs at Red River combined “the light, gay-hearted spirit, and full muscular frame of the Canadien, with the fierce passions and active habits of the Indian.”

They thus embodied joie de vivre which is commemorated each year at the Festival du Voyageur.