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!”

Hey there keener,
Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired 14 new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022. If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)
Hey there keener,
Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

With your help, we’ll be able to do so much more in 2022. If you believe in the power of independent journalism, join our pod by becoming a Narwhal today. (P.S. Did you know we’re able to issue charitable tax receipts?)

RCMP were planning raids while in talks with Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chiefs about meeting

The images are familiar now, iconic even: Heavily armed RCMP officers use an axe and a chainsaw to break down the door of a tiny...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help us publish three ambitious investigations
Help us publish three ambitious investigations
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!
People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!
People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism
We’re on a mission to add 500 new members in May so we can pull off three more ambitious investigations this year — and we’re nearly halfway there! Will you join the thousands of readers who make The Narwhal possible?
‘These are the stories that need to be told’
We’re on a mission to add 500 new members in May so we can pull off three more ambitious investigations this year — and we’re nearly halfway there! Will you join the thousands of readers who make The Narwhal possible?
‘These are the stories that need to be told’