Inuk woman in Ottawa-area uses traditional know-how to collect, recycle roadkill for crafts

Manitok Thompson was appalled to learn that fur from road-killed animals was going to waste. Now, 'instead of throwing away the whole carcass, they tell me, and I go pick it up.'

'It's a very big waste to just throw away a road kill,' says Manitok Thompson

Manitok Thompson was born in Coral Harbour, Nunavut. She's a former politician, and an avid seamstress. (Submitted by Manitok Thompson)

In the garage of Ottawa-area woman Manitok Thompson's house hangs one drying deer hide, four beaver skins, a coyote skin and two seal skins.

Some were gifts from her sisters from Nunavut, and some — roadkill.

"It's a very big waste to just throw away a road kill," says Thompson, an Inuk woman who moved to Carleton Place a year ago.

She recycles the skins and furs from road-killed wild animals in the Ottawa region, and turns them into traditional, Inuit crafts and clothing.

Thompson's friend Leah Sigori cleaning roadkill in Thompson's garage. Animal skins are drying in the background. (submitted by Manitok Thompson)

"People are throwing out way too much stuff when they can reuse it," says Thompson. "The skin can be made into something, if you know how to tan it and skin it."

'What's a roadkill?'

When Thompson first moved south to Alberta eight years ago, she said she didn't even know what the term "roadkill" meant.

"What's a roadkill? Because of course, [in Nunavut] we have little gravel roads," said Thompson, a former N.W.T. politician who was also Nunavut's first female cabinet minister. "Our animals are not being road killed in Coral Harbour, Nunavut." 

I don't think I would want a Chihuahua. That's hardly any skin at all,- Manitok Thompson

They're hunted, says Thompson. So when she found out that wild animals were accidentally being struck by cars in the South, she had some questions of her own. 

"I actually asked, what do they do with all this roadkill? They just dump them," she said. "I know it's happening across Canada."

She's right. 
Thompson says she drives around the Ottawa region, looking for roadkill to recycle. 'It's a very big waste to just throw away a road kill,' she says. (submitted by Manitok Thompson)

According to the City of Ottawa, the city's road services workers will remove dead animals from the streets, only to throw them out.

"Wild animals are buried and domestic animals [like dogs and cats] are stored in freezers at designated city yards for later disposal by a contracting company," according to Kevin Wylie, general manager of Ottawa Public Works and Environmental Services.

Completely legal

The wild animals that Thompson recycles are found on country roads and highways.

"Sometimes it's raccoons and the odd porcupine. But I don't do porcupine," she says. She also doesn't touch domestic animals, or animals near homes because the risk of diseases like rabies are higher.

Thompson made these mittens made from a road-killed raccoon. (submitted by Manitok Thompson)

"I don't think I would want a Chihuahua. That's hardly any skin at all," said Thompson, laughing.

Thompson says she drives around to look for roadkill. But recently, she she's made friends with some guys who clear the roads in her neighbourhood. 

"They have been throwing them out in the garbage for years. Sometimes they get black bears, lynx, wolf, coyotes… sometimes they get a moose," she says. "[Now] when they get roadkill, instead of throwing away the whole carcass, they tell me, and I go pick it up."

To her delight, the guys called her last week to pick up a road-killed deer.

On average, there are 1,100 roadkill registrations in Ontario per year.- Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry of Ontario

"I don't want to be labeled as a person who's poaching," she said. So she reached out to Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

It is completely legal to keep most road-killed, wild animals, as long as the individual registers the dead animal in the province's online registry, according to Jolanta Kowalski, spokesperson for the ministry. Thompson says she's been registering her animals ever since she found out.

"Furbearing mammals that have been turned into artwork or jewellery… may be sold," said Kowalski.

Pelts that are tanned and made into products may also be sold, she said.

On average, there are 1,100 roadkill registrations in Ontario per year, said Kowalski.   

Sharing Inuit culture in Ottawa

Last September, Thompson began opening her home every Saturday to anyone who wanted to learn about Inuit culture and traditional skills.

"I'm teaching them how to recycle everything. I tell them to go find old leather jackets, fur coats, and turn them into something. If they see a leather couch on the side of the road, take it and cut it up and turn it into mitts," says Thompson.
Women learning how to sew traditional Inuit crafts at Thompson's house in Carleton Place, Ont. (submitted by Manitok Thompson)

The group also feasts on traditional foods like frozen fish, seal and caribou while they learn to sew.

"I think it really helps clear up some misunderstandings [about Indigenous people]," says Thompson.

"If they learn how to make good use of leather couches, jackets, coats, or roadkill, you have gained your independence, being able to sustain yourself as a survivor," says Thompson.

"People think we're garbage pickers? No. We just learned how to survive without being dependent on something, or without spending thousands of dollars for something we can do ourselves."