Hide and sleek in the tanning parlour

Nunavik Furs uses a little know-how and a lot of machinery to create natural beauty


KUUJJUAQ – If you walk into the office of Nunavik Furs in Kuujjuaq, you may immediately know that the furs lining the corridor come from polar bears, muskoxen, black bears, raccoons, otters and seals.

But you’ll be lost trying to guess the purpose of many machines inside the workshop.

That’s because tanning- the art of preserving pelts from decay – requires a unique set of equipment and a special know-how.

Master tanner Daniel Lemelin, who runs Nunavik Furs, knows tanning inside and out. He’s able to explain the complex steps of washing, pickling, tanning and softening, which transform a stiff, dried-out pelt into a silky, long-lasting fur.

Furs arrive at Nunavik Furs stiff as a board. After rehydration in a bath, a machine strips any remaining fat and membranes from the back of the skin. It’s a noisy and tricky process over a sharp, twirling scraper.

“This was a woman’s job before,” explains Lemelin, as he slides the slippery ski over the scraper.

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But, with many Inuit women now in the workforce, there’s not enough time for them to carry out this painstaking job, which used to be done with a handheld scraper.

“So, this is a service we offer and it’s appreciated,” he says.

Nunavik Furs is a subsidiary of the land claim body, Makivik Corporation. That’s why providing service to the beneficiaries of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement is important, says Charles Dorais from Makivik’s economic development department.

Nunavik Furs got its start a few years ago, when Makivik learned that a set of tanning equipment was being sold in the Gaspé region of Quebec by a company which was going out of business.

At that time, Lemelin was already tanning furs in the basement of his Kuujjuaq home – and he was eager to get into the business.

“We saw a real potential,” Dorais says. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten into it.”

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Nunavik Furs business now serves Nunavik hunters and trappers, both directly and indirectly.

Some send in furs for tanning and then keep the tanned furs or sell them for use in Makivik’s Inuit Fur Clothing Program or its clothing subsidiary, Nunavik Creations. Community hunters and trappers associations also send in larger quantities of furs, purchased through the hunter support programs. The finished furs are then resold to local residents, who can buy them at a discount if they’re beneficiaries.

But Makivik also wants a larger clientele for Nunavik Furs. It’s now the only small tannery in the northeastern part of Canada, outside of Montreal, and the only one specializing in wild fur.

This is what happens after the pelt is cleaned at Nunavik Furs: it’s beaten, dried, tumbled with sawdust, stretched, and oiled. The result is a soft, lustrous and pliable fur.

Nunavik Furs’ tanning prices are reasonable – as little as $35 a foot for a cleaned polar bear skin.

And Dorais stresses that Nunavik Furs manages the entire tanning process in an environmentally-friendly way.

“Whatever we do here doesn’t hurt the environment,” he says.

Beneficiary Dominique Morisset is now learning all the various steps involved in tanning from Lemelin: hands-on training is the only way to learn this craft.

Small-scale tanning is not a speedy or modern process. It takes at least a week to tan a polar bear, although Nunavik Furs can turn out about 30 tanned sealskins a week.

Some of the machines used in tanning are hand-made; many at Nunavik Furs are nearly 100 years old.

Tanning, the way Nunavik Furs does it, remains an incredibly labour-intensive business, say Lemelin and Dorais.

But the results are encouraging. Hanging outside the workshop are hundreds of lustrous furs, most of which sell for about $100 – that is, apart from black bear, muskox and polar bear furs.

Nunavik Furs also sees lynx and otter furs brought in from local trappers.

“When you do down river from Kuujjuaq, you have animals you don’t see in the Arctic,” Dorais says.

The market for tanning extends beyond Nunavik, too. As the word gets out that you don’t have to go south for expert tanning, Nunavik Furs is getting more business, Dorais says. More furs are arriving from other places, including Nunavut, where a tannery in Qikiqtarjuaq once tanned sealskins.

“If we can expand our market, we can become viable,” Dorais says.

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