Bernice Clarke

How whale blubber is fuelling this soapmaker’s Inuit pride

Bernice Clarke puts whale oil in her soap to celebrate her Inuit heritage, and it’s helping her reassert her identity and understand the medicines of her ancestors. But is it understood by the wider world?

This is part five of Land Crafted: a five-part video series exploring entrepreneurship in northern Canada.

Bernice and Justin Clarke’s home, with its open kitchen, cozy wood stove and enormous TV, could just as well be in Saskatoon or Halifax were it not for the heaps of maktaaq on the kitchen island.

Friends and family are gathered around taking slices of bowhead and narwhal blubber with their crescent-shaped ulus, carving off bits of frozen caribou, and picking at a whole Arctic char. It’s mid-morning on a quiet Saturday in Iqaluit, and Bernice is in her element.

“We’re very much still tied to the food and the land here,” she says. “It’s very healing when we’re eating together. It brings us close together.”

Bernice has been on a journey the last several years as she’s rediscovering the power of Inuit traditions. A new chapter began when she started making body butter as a hobby and giving it away to her friends. Meeka Mike, a family friend, suggested that she incorporate bowhead whale oil into the products, and took it a step further by delivering a bin full of blubber to her front door.

“I think Justin was a bit hesitant at first,” Mike laughs. But she explained to the couple that there was a long tradition of Inuit using the oil to clean their skin, and that her own grandmother had used whale oil to make soap.

Word got out quickly, and when Uasau Soap arrived at craft fairs, their products would sell out almost immediately.

“I think she came back with about $450 profit,” Justin recalls, still impressed, of Bernice’s first craft fair.

Both Justin and Bernice were convinced. The company now sells products across multiple lines, many of which incorporate whale oil, and some of which use blubber from bearded seals and plants from the tundra around Iqaluit.

It’s a bold idea in a world where marine mammal products  — even those from limited Indigenous hunts — have been treated harshly by activists and governments. Yet Bernice says reactions to her using whale oil in her products has been mostly positive.

“I’ve even had vegans tell me it’s a beautiful story,” she says.

“I haven’t had anyone come to me that wasn’t happy with me using the [oil]. They’ve actually been really supportive. And if I do come across anyone that is against me using the oil, that’s their belief, and I’m not going to try and change their mind. I’ll explain my story. They have their beliefs and I have mine — and I’m very strong in mine.”

The business has grown, but it has also allowed Bernice to feel pride in her culture, one that was deliberately and systematically oppressed through colonization. She and Justin both have jobs outside of the soap-making, but are working on building their business so that it can grow and spread to support other families.

“It’s accidentally given me so much vision and strength, and a drive to really get deeper into my culture,” she says.

“And that’s through —” she smiles, and tilts her head, “blubber!”

Jimmy Thomson is a Yellowknife-based freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe…

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