My Canada, 23/150: How warm fur cooled

The canoodlers here are the young loves who, many years later, became my parents. And what remains of this picture – beyond the family engendered by them – is that coat my mother is wearing, known at the time as a “Hudson Seal”.

It was not seal at all, but in fact muskrat. Muskrat fur has been dyed, plucked and sheared to resemble different styles of pelts and, in the 1930s, there was a rage for Hudson Seal, which  was plucked and sheared muskrat dyed to look like Alaska, or northern, fur seal.

This coat is pretty tatty today – it hangs in a spare closet and it’s one item I’ve not yet had the heart to toss out. At one point is was jet black but the dye has worn at spots and the natural brown tones of the muskrat show around the cuff and collar. With the top, coarser coat cut away, the underside fur exposed is incredibly soft: I remember nuzzling my face against it as a child.

My mother gave this coat to me when I reached adult size and it was a warm companion throughout my school years; it even made a guest appearance in a play. There was a second Hudson Seal coat in the family, once worn by my maternal grandmother, and we lent those two coats to a high school production featuring a scene with two, elderly maiden sisters. Yes, I was one of the “elderly maids” at the ripe age of 17.

Fur trade, and fur products, were once primary industries in Canada as it developed in the 17th and 18th century, with beaver pelts becoming a kind of de facto currency.  But in the later 20th century, killing animals for their pelts, whether they were raised on farms or caught in the wild, became a hot cause for environmentalists and protesters. Particularly galling to some was the seal hunt Рthere are few creatures cuter on the planet than a big-eyed baby seal when its fur is still white, before it turns mottled or grey.

A ban on Canadian seal products by the European Union in 2009 shrank the seal market, and the seal industry in Newfoundland, coastal Quebec and northern Canada. Prices have collapsed and while some seals are still caught and sold – Norway is Canada’s largest market – it is no longer the lucrative trade it once was. Seal populations have also rebounded; there is a political movement to name a National Seal Products Day to promote a renewed seal harvest and market.

I doubt that today I would buy a new fur coat. Still, nothing brings back memories of my mother faster than a caress of her old Hudson Seal.


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