Skip to main content

The two-foot long narwhal tusk donated to the Arctic Institute of North America by Goodwill Industries of Alberta. The tusk arrived in the box pictured.Hesam Rezaei/Handout

For staff at a Goodwill thrift store in Calgary, the donation was an unusual find: A narwhal tusk, complete with hunting permit from 1978, filled out in blue ink.

The tusk’s tip is smooth, the body spiralled, and base end is jagged, like a snapped twig. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued the marine mammal tag, No. 1032, in English and Inuktut. The permits allow Inuit hunters to harvest narwhals, known as the unicorns of the sea because of their protruding tooth.

Goodwill Industries of Alberta trains staff to keep an eye out for unusual or valuable items, such as the vintage sealskin coat that surfaced in Edmonton in January, the authentic Louis Vuitton bag that appeared in June in Calgary and the narwhal tusk that showed up at the Beacon Heights location in September. This training gives Goodwill the chance to maximize the money it brings in – the designer bag later sold for $500 – and preserve items that are culturally or scientifically important. Goodwill wanted to donate the sealskin coat to a museum and will soon hand over the narwhal artifact to the University of Calgary’s Arctic Institute of North America (AINA).

An anonymous donor gave the ivory tusk to Goodwill.

“It is just so unexpected," said Sandie Black, the head of veterinary services at the Calgary Zoo and professor at the University of Calgary. “It is this little piece of Arctic history."

While the circumstances surrounding the two-foot tooth are unique, the item itself is not. Inuit can legally harvest narwhals. The meat, Dr. Black said, serves as a source of food. The tusks, meanwhile, are important resources for Inuit artists such as jewellery makers and carvers. They can be sold legally with proper paperwork.

The tusk that showed up at Goodwill is small, so it likely belonged to a young male narwhal, between the ages of 3 and 5, Dr. Black said. In the Arctic, tusks sell for about $100 to $200 a foot, she said. In the south, they can cost four to five times that amount. There are roughly 120,000 to 125,000 adult narwhals in the Arctic, she said.

Goodwill reached out to the University of Calgary to research the thrift-store find. The AINA exhibits materials such as books and art with partners such as schools, rather than maintaining a permanent collection. The AINA has never had a narwhal tusk. “While they are not necessarily rare ... they aren’t very often donated,” said Shannon Christoffersen, the manager of data and information services at AINA. Federal regulations around marine animals such as narwhals make such gifts difficult, she said.

Canada started regulating narwhal hunts in 1971, with annual quotas for individual Inuit hunters. In 1977, the government replaced the individual caps with quotas assigned to communities or settlements. The tag for the tusk that surfaced in Calgary is for the Central and Arctic area, according to photos distributed by the university.

Shannon Black, Goodwill’s brand co-ordinator for Calgary, said her organization is pleased the AINA can use the tusk for educational purposes.

“They were very much committed to preserving the tusk’s historical and cultural integrity,” she said.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.