Four years ago, the Museum was thinking about how it could create an event that was relevant to our mission and collections and would also offer people a chance to support us in a relatively painless and enjoyable way (with fun being the sugar-coating on the fundraising pill). We knew what we didn’t want–we didn’t want another one of those events that you go to because you have to, and as soon as you know you’ve been seen, and before you’ve even finished your rubber chicken and long before the frozen cheescake with glutinous cherries on top arrives, you’re heading out the door to do something really important, like watching re-runs of Friends.
So if we weren’t going to do that, what were we going to do? One way to throw a party that’s relevant to a historical organization is to find a historical party, and that’s just what we went searching for. We didn’t have to look to far, because one of the biggest social events in 18th century Canada was right in front of us, almost. Enter the Beaver Club Gala, and the famous slightly off-the-wall CCM esprit de corps, and also a wild boar’s head with an apple in its mouth.
The Beaver Club was founded in 1785 by Montreal-based members of the North West Company who had spent at least one winter in the pays d’en haut or north country. In the early years, the club provided a venue (and an excuse!) for seasoned fur traders to gather and reminisce over fine food and generous libations. Regardless of what activities occurred later in the evening, the meetings always began respectfully with five toasts: “To the Mother of all Saints;” “To the King;” “To the Fur Trade and all its Branches;” “To the Voyageurs, Wives and Children;” and “To Absent Members.”
No minutes remain detailing exactly what went on at these gatherings, although enough of their considerable food and liquor invoices have survived to convey the character of the event. The record shows that as the tradition evolved, the Beaver Club was a great equalizer. Kings, politicians, elite Montreal businessmen, soldiers of the realm, guests from all walks of life and traders with somewhat rusty social graces, but with adventuresome stories to decant, all rubbed shoulders in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
“Fortitude in Distress,” the motto of the Beaver Club, applied generally to life in the Fur Trade, but it may also have applied specifically to the antics of monthly Club meetings in Montreal. Dinners began with drinks, the five toasts and then, in due course, a piper in full regalia leading in a chef bearing aloft a flaming boar’s head on a silver platter. Menus varied but usually included country fare mixed with fine wine and much revelry.
Punctuating the courses would be stories, recitations and occasionally dramatic presentations that would give way eventually to voyageur songs, dancing and more toasts. Traditionally, the culminating event of the evening was Le Grand Voyage, a boisterous re-enactment of a journey by canoe down wild white water, over back-breaking portages and into the heart of fur country, all imagined by Club members as they sat side-by-side on parlour chairs “paddling”with their dinner forks, sgian dubhs (kilt knives in knee socks), or any other item at hand.
Over a period of 20 years through the 1960s and 1970s, the Nor’Wester and Loyalist Museum in Williamstown, Ontario, hosted a Beaver Club Dinner, and it is in the spirit of this tradition that the Beaver Club Gala was revived in 2008 as a fundraising project.
It’s a wonderful evening of fun and good cheer in support of a great cause, and all proceeds benefit the educational and public programs of the Canadian Canoe Museum. We hope to see you there. Tickets are on sale now. (Thanks to Mollie Cartmell for these photos of the Gala in previous years)