Where is the NWT’s fur industry headed?
At a forum in Dettah last week, harvesters, industry representatives, artisans and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss the NWT’s fur industry.
The three-day gathering aimed to bring people together to share knowledge, foster growth and resilience in the industry and discuss ways to improve the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur Program.
The program provides NWT trappers access to the international fur auction market and promotes fur at international venues.
On Thursday, the last day of the forum, speakers discussed the industry’s future, including the challenges people are facing and signs of positive change.
In her keynote presentation, Ethel Blondin Andrew – the first Indigenous woman elected to Parliament as well as a senior leader and advisor to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative – spoke about the conservation economy and the importance of Indigenous stewardship. Of the world’s remaining biodiversity, 80 percent is on lands managed by Indigenous people, she said, adding that Indigenous people recognize that people and land are interdependent.
Blondin Andrew also spoke about the industry’s deep roots in Canada and the North.
“Fur built this country,” she said.
Over the past few decades, the fur industry has faced its fair share of challenges.
A strong anti-fur movement has painted fur as unnecessary and inhumane since the 1980s, driving down demand and pressuring brands to stop using fur in their products.
More recently, activists have moved from emotional appeals to legal approaches, said Doug Chiasson, executive director of the Fur Institute of Canada, which advocates for the fur industry. A prominent example, he said, is the European Union’s 2009 ban on seal products.
“That absolutely destroyed the seal market,” he said.
Although Chiasson said the anti-fur movement is not quite as intense as it once was, he and other industry representatives highlighted several ongoing issues during a panel at the forum on Thursday. At the end of 2022, for example, Canada Goose phased out coyote fur trim on its coats.
The company’s exit from the fur market has had a negative impact, said Howard Noseworthy, from the Fur Harvesters Auction.
“Right now, we are looking at coyote prices that are less than half of what they were just a couple of years ago,” he said. “To rebuild what we had with Canada Goose could potentially take years, if it happens at all.”
Chiasson also pointed out that Peta, one of the world’s most prominent animal rights groups, is trying to get the British Ministry of Defence to stop using bear skins in caps worn by the King’s Guard. Although the caps are not the core of the Canadian fur industry, he said, they are symbolic.
“If they can beat us on that, what are they going to beat us on next?” Chiasson asked.
But he believes public opinion about fur is starting to turn, citing an increasing interest in fur mitts and fur accessories.
“Rihanna and Beyoncé are getting their picture taken wearing fox-fur coats all the time,” he said, “and that drives a certain segment of interest.”
‘Misunderstanding the purpose’
Some customers also want to support Indigenous business owners and artisans, Chiasson said.
International Fur Dressers’ Matthew Stepien, for example, shared a story from his travels to Copenhagen. He said was surprised to see so many women wearing ring seal parkas, mitts and hats. Later, he learned the women were wearing sealskin clothing from Greenland because they wanted to support their sisters in the North.
Another reason behind the uptick in interest may stem from the fact that fur is exceptionally warm and it isn’t synthetic. Stepien said a lot of people want natural, sustainable fibres that will biodegrade.
“Fur checks all those boxes,” he said. “We all know, in this room, that fur will outperform any synthetic fibre.”
NWT artisans and business owners are now working to get people to recognize the value of fur.
In 2015, Brenda Dragon founded Aurora Heat, a Fort Smith-based company that makes reusable hand, foot and body warmers out of sheared beaver fur.
“The goal was to effect the widespread acceptance of fur for warmth,” she said in another panel on Thursday.
“What I saw a lot was fur for fashion, and that was going in a very downward trend towards people misunderstanding the purpose of fur.”
Growing up in a trapping family, Dragon recognized the functionality of fur and the importance of trapping to Indigenous people.
In the past few years, she has convinced many others of fur’s usefulness. Throughout the pandemic, Dragon said her business grew by 350 percent. She has also succeeded in bringing an entirely new product to market. Before, people mostly used disposable hand-warmers to keep their fingers from freezing. Now, when people Google reusable hand warmers, she said, Aurora Heat pops up.
Research demonstrates results
In line with Dragon’s vision of marketing fur for warmth, a National Research Council (NRC) project is proving just how well fur works to keep people warm.
Since 2019, the NRC has been investigating how Indigenous-made garments perform in harsh environments, said Anne Barker, director of the NRC’s Arctic and Northern Challenge Program.
Although most northerners know that fur is the warmest material you can get, there was little scientific research to back it up. The project’s aim is to gather data to justify bringing Indigenous clothing into Government of Canada uniforms as a form of personal protective equipment, Barker said.
While government staff working in the North have faced challenges with frostbite and dexterity, people have been living in the North for thousands of years, she said.
Working with craft producers across the North, Barker and her colleagues procured a variety of clothing items, including qiviut, sealskin and beaver products. They then tested them on a mannequin equipped with thermal probes to see how the garments performed.
“All of the Indigenous-made clothing provided a very high level of thermal protection,” Barker said. Typically, clothing for government staff has to meet certain performance standards. Indigenous clothing exceeded these requirements, she said, sometimes excessively.
Barker pointed out that responding to calls for proposals – for example, an RCMP detachment’s request for 1,000 pairs of mittens – can be hard for small businesses.
Her team is now working on ways for craft producers to compete with other companies in providing products for northern operations.
Setting the right price
While fur has clear benefits, people in the industry have been underpricing its value for far too long, said Johanna Tiemessen, manager of arts and traditional economies at the NWT’s Departure of Industry, Tourism and Investment.
“The market is out of whack,” she told Cabin Radio at the forum. To try to correct the market, she said, NWT Arts launched a workshop earlier this year to help artists charge appropriate prices.
Tanis Simpson – the founder of Qiviut Inc, which produces qiviut yarns and knitwear – has similarly seen artists undervalue their work. She said people are willing to pay higher prices, especially when they know the story behind a product.
“Qiviut is the most expensive yarn on the market,” she said in a panel at the forum. She said she watched a customer who had put down a bundle of yarn snatch it back up after hearing her story.
“If they really value it, and they know your story, they will purchase it,” she said.
Dragon, too, highlighted the importance of sharing the story behind an item – the culture it comes from, what it takes to produce it and the way of life around it.
“There’s value in the animal, there’s value in our lifestyle, and there’s value in us as people,” Dragon said.
The more people create the story of Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur, she said, the more people will be compensated at the rate that they should be.
Space for more
Chloe Dragon Smith, a trapper outside Fort Smith and Brenda Dragon’s daughter, said that story not only adds value to the product but can also support people on the land to continue living their stories, every day, in a sustainable way.
Valuing fur means valuing the process that leads to that product, she said, in a way that goes beyond glorifying and romanticizing the lifestyle.
In a follow-up email to Cabin Radio, Dragon Smith wrote: “There are foundational differences between reviving a colonial, one-dimensional fur industry, and supporting holistic Indigenous economies and lifestyles in the North – of which trapping is an important part.
“For example, could we compensate trappers for the work they do in maintaining biodiversity, combatting climate change, monitoring impacts on the Land, building healthy lifestyles, maintaining culture, and so much more?”
Looking to the future of trapping, Dragon Smith said big shifts in mindset are still needed.
The GNWT’s fur shop in Yellowknife, for example, sells furs that haven’t been caught in the North, according to Dragon Smith and Robert Grandjambe, her partner and fellow trapper. The shop also sells pelts at wholesale prices.
Although this makes them affordable to artists, they said, it doesn’t support trappers trying to rebuild Indigenous economies and make self-determined livings on the land.
“In terms of policy and economy, we have a long way to go,” Dragon Smith said. But she said what trappers have inside, as people and northerners, is strong and gives her hope.
Dragon Smith and Grandjambe said the trappers who remain have strong roots and a deep understanding of what they do and why they do it, adding that trappers are highly adaptable and resilient people.
“If the NWT can support us to live sustainably doing what we do, and how we want to do it,” Dragon Smith said, “it will build space for more people to choose this lifestyle.”
This article is produced under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0 licence through the Wilfrid Laurier University Climate Change Journalism Fellowship.