Decked head to toe in mink and beaver, it’s clear the fur trade is a way of life for Kristine Bourque.
She was raised on a secluded plot of land over 100 kilometres from Fort Good Hope on the Mackenzie River known as Grandview, where her parents, Fred and Irene Sorenson, owned a homestead.
“You could only get in by plane, boat and Ski-Doo,” said Bourque.
Her parents lived there for 30 years with Bourques’ brother Roald who was her father’s “right hand.”
Bourque said her backwoods upbringing motivated her to pursue a career in the fur industry.
After moving away from home, she sewed parkas in Inuvik before deciding to move to Yellowknife in 1976.
Inspired by watching people working with fur during her time in Inuvik, she decided to go to Toronto for a fur design course.
After completing the course, Bourque received a government grant to cover the cost of an industrial fur sewing machine and she went to work producing pieces for various shops and galleries in town.
She worked from home a lot, sewing a variety of mitts and hats, with help from her sons and daughter.
“My sons would help sew mitts while I worked on bigger pieces and my daughter would be cutting fur for me,” said Bourque.
She worked from home so she could look after her children and supplied a number of shops in town with fur garments, but it wasn’t long before she decided to strike out on her own.
“Briefly I opened a shop downtown near the Gold Range,” said Bourque. “Someone from the CKLB radio station came down to record for a commercial and I realized I hadn’t thought of a name for it yet. It was actually him who suggested “Just Furs” and I went with it.”
Her downtown shop did not last as she had to close it after her father passed away in the late ’80s, but in 2002 she secured a lease in the Old Town building where Bourque operates her business to this day.
“I built the company from the ground up and, with the exception of my kids, operated the business almost entirely on my own,” said Bourque. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s very fulfilling to see people walk out the door happy.”
When Bourque initially opened her shop, she was mostly selling products she made and filling custom orders.
“Muskox hide gloves with sheared beaver fur and various earmuffs were extremely popular and it eventually got to a point where it was too much and I couldn’t keep up,” she said. “We used to sell hundreds of gloves and earmuffs every year.”
Over the years, she’s developed a network of artisans and craftspeople from around the North who supply her business, such as Dene Fur Clouds Ltd. out of Fort Providence.
People have come to expect quality from Bourque’s shop, which is lined wall to wall with products made of seal, muskox, beaver, fox, rabbit, moose and elk just to name a few.
“After years of being in the business, you get to know your clients and what they want,” she said. “At this point, I rarely experiment with new items. I don’t bring in fur parkas in either, being too large for the store.”
Although the vast majority of her products are produced in the North by herself or local artisans, not every piece of fur is locally sourced.
“There are a lot of trappers in the North, but you have to have the fur tanned properly,” she said. “Home-tanned fur does not last as long so when it comes to selling durable products, I have to go with the commercially tanned pelts.”
Bourque said it’s been challenging running the shop herself. She often gets friends to come and mind the business when they can.
At this point she’s starting to think her time operating a business is coming to an end.
“I’m not getting any younger and the business continues to be a lot of work,” she said. “So I’ve started to think about retirement and selling Just Furs. I’d like to put the shop in the hands of good people, perhaps an Indigenous family, but whoever takes over will certainly have to work hard.”
Bourque said she hopes to be able to spend more of her time with her children, some of whom have moved out of the territory, relax and volunteer her time as a Jehovah’s Witness.
But she plans to keep busy during retirement as she does not intend to stop sewing, crafting and creating.