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'Nobody has ever seen this': Filmmaker chronicles father's fur trade adventures

Last of the Fur Traders documents Hugh Kroetsch's experience working for the Hudson’s Bay Company at the tail end of the fur trade.

Frederick Kroetsch created a documentary about his dad’s adventures: Last of the Fur Traders.

Kevin Tuong / For Metro

Frederick Kroetsch created a documentary about his dad’s adventures: Last of the Fur Traders.

Filmmaker Frederick Kroetsch was rummaging through some old items in his father Hugh’s basement about 10 years ago when he found what appeared to be an ammunition case from the Second World War era.

But what he found inside was far more unique.

“I opened it and there were all these eight millimetre reels of film. And I was an emerging filmmaker and put it on a projector, watched them and was like, ‘Whoa! What? Dad, you never told me about this!’”

“And he was like, well I never realized they were important.”

It turns out the forgotten footage was from Hugh’s time in Canada’s Great White North, when he worked as an engineer for the Hudson’s Bay Company at the tail end of the fur trade.

He worked on ships in the artic from 1950 to 1953, where he would gather furs to be shipped to Europe, and documented much of his travels with his 8mm camera.

“I said dad, nobody has ever seen this, this is 100 per cent unique footage from a time when no one was filming. That’s really where this documentary began. So I guess this documentary is 65 years in the making,” Kroetsch said.

Kroetsch decided to trek up north with his father and retrace his steps through the Arctic to create Last of the Fur Traders, a documentary that brings the stories Kroetsch grew up hearing to life.

As a child, Kroetsch heard stories about how his dad had to stay silent about the top secret Distant Early Warning Line, a series of radar stations to detect attacks during the Cold War, and about how there would be days when the boats his father worked on would literally be “iced in”.

“Every day you’d have to cut a six-inch strip of ice around the boat so the ice wouldn’t crush it,” he said.

In addition to a family-bonding exercise, the trip to Northwest Territories cities such as Aklavik and Inuvik was educational for Kroetsch. He learned about how the second last residential school closed in Inuvik in 1996, as well as the effect of climate change in the Arctic.

He also had the pleasure of wearing a full body mosquito net suit in Tuktoyaktuk.

“I’ve never experienced mosquitos like that,” he said.

But most importantly, the trip emphasized the importance of Canada’s north and the people who live there. He said the way the Inuit and First Nations warmly welcomed him and his father, and expressed their appreciation for sharing their story, left a mark on him.

“To me that really summed it up, that what we were doing wasn’t just a selfish travelogue,” Kroetsch said. “This documentary might actually have some impact, and start a dialogue about a place we should be looking at.”

Last of the Fur Traders premieres on Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. on AMI-tv. The full documentary will be available to stream online after the initial broadcast.

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