'It's mostly a man's world:' Meet 3 women in the N.W.T. fishing industry

'Sometimes I feel a little bit like there’s a lot of eyes on me,' says Stephanie Vaillancourt who has been fishing for 10 years.

'I think we overlook women's contribution to the fishery,' says fishwerwoman

Stephanie Vaillancourt says she started out in the fishing industry by mistake. But now it's how she makes her living and she's been doing it for 10 years. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

CBC's Trailbreaker host Loren McGinnis was in Hay River, N.W.T., this week talking to people in the fishing industry. Noticing there were far more men than women getting out on the boats, he talked to a few of them to find out what it's like to fish in the North. 

Fishing by mistake

Stephanie Vaillancourt ended up in the Yellowknife fishing industry by mistake. She started in Hay River about 10 years ago. She was talking to a fisherman who needed a helper for the summer, and she didn't have any plans, so she offered to help.

"It was my first summer here too," said Vaillancourt. "I started fishing with him... and that was it."

Now fishing is paying her bills. She sells smoked fish at the farmer's market, and is working to set up some deals with restaurants in town. She plans on fishing through the winter as well.

Vaillancourt likes fishing because of the freedom of travelling on the water, the relaxation when she's travelling to her nets, and the excitement when she starts pulling them in. "It's quite a rush."

I've seen other women on boats but never really in charge.- Stephanie Vaillancourt

"The element is so simple. You fish, you gut it, you sell it," said Vaillancourt. "There's quite a beauty to that."

Although, she's not as big a fan of the filleting part. "I think it's the least favourite part of every fisherman."

Stephanie Vaillancourt sells smoked fish at the farmer's market in Yellowknife. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

Vaillancourt said she hasn't seen many women in positions of power when it comes to the fishing industry.

"I've seen other women on boats but never really in charge," said Vaillancourt.

"It's mostly a man's world and sometimes I feel a little bit like there's a lot of eyes on me."

She said she gets a lot of support from others in the industry, but sometimes when she's selling her fish on the dock she gets questioned.

"They just assume that I bought the fish and I fillet it. And I'm like, no, no I went fishing this morning and I brought this fish back.

"I can actually do it too."

Trying her luck up North

Liz Andrews moved up north this year to try fishing in Great Slave Lake, after the fishing industry shut down in Alberta. She comes from a family that fished Lesser Slave Lake in Alberta.

"I actually wish they didn't close the industry down there, we did make some bucks," said Andrews. "That's why we're down this way… I decided to come out and give it a shot."

She'll be in the territory for another three weeks before she heads back down south.

Liz Andrews came up North to fish after the industry shut down in Alberta. (Loren McGinnis/CBC)

She's on a boat with her family, including cousins, aunts, and uncles. "It's fun to be on a good crew that makes you laugh and joke and make it a good day out there instead of a miserable day."

She has noticed that she is one of only a few women fishing the lake, and she thinks it's "pretty cool."

Andrews said sometimes they'll stay out fishing until eight or nine at night, which is a long day, but  "all the fish you get, it's worth it."

Generations of fishing

Though Beatrice Lepine doesn't work in the industry, she comes from generations of fishers in the N.W.T. Her grandparents on both sides were fishermen, either on Great Slave Lake or near Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

"I grew up in the fishery," said Lepine. When she was a toddler she would ride in the fish box with her sister. She heard stories about women in the fishing industry.

"I think we overlook women's contribution to the fishery."

Beatrice Lepine points to photos of her father that are on the dock in Hay River. Her family has been in the fishing industry for generations. (Joanne Stassen/CBC)

"I heard the story of a woman who lived here," said Lepine. "I recall hearing that during the winters, her husband was a World War II vet, and he had a lung problem, and so she would go out in winter and fish while he stayed home because he couldn't handle the cold."

"And winter fishing is very, very tough business."

"A lot of our mothers, aunts, people who went out into the fish camps in the summer time, they cooked and cleaned and did all this stuff for their families and for the crews their husbands had. So women worked really hard in the fisheries as well."

She said neither she, nor any of her seven siblings stayed in the fishing industry because it's so hard. 

A photo on the dock of Beatrice Lepine's father. (Joanne Stassen/CBC)

With files from Loren McGinnis and Joanne Stassen


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