Fishy deal

It must be tough making a persuasive pitch to the snarky hosts of Dragon's Den. Tougher still if you can't speak or hear, as is the case with Lewis Hartland of Tagish.

It must be tough making a persuasive pitch to the snarky hosts of Dragon’s Den. Tougher still if you can’t speak or hear, as is the case with Lewis Hartland of Tagish.

But Hartland, at age 55, is long accustomed to being a deaf mute, having lost his hearing to spinal meningitis at infancy.

Instead, the biggest hassle he faced during his national television appearance, which airs tonight, was a nasty flu. As a fix, he loaded up on cough syrup and lozenges before the filming.

The bigger burden lay on the shoulders of Hartland’s 31-year-old hearing son and interpreter, Samson.

With flickering fingers, he had to translate everything said by the show’s hosts for his father, and vice versa. At the same time, Samson had to be quick on his feet when it was his turn to describe the business side of their pitch.

It’s sort of like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time – except that, in this case, $20,000 was on the line.

That’s how much the duo asked the dragons, in exchange for a 15 per cent stake in the Hartland’s venture, Yukon Smoked Salmon.

The business’s premise is simple. The elder Hartland has smoked salmon for more than 30 years.

“I just knew I had something that tasted incredible,” said Lewis, translated by Samson during an interview with the News.

But anyone who’s seen Dragon’s Den knows you need a lot more than an idea. You need a business plan to back it up, otherwise you quickly become the subject of scathing ridicule.

Both Hartlands, as longtime fans of the show, knew this. They also knew they didn’t have time to develop a bulletproof plan. They only had four weeks between receiving an invitation to appear on the show and the filming date in Toronto.

So Samson prioritized. First things first: he needed a supply of fish.

Procuring salmon from the Canadian length of the Yukon River was out of the question. The run’s numbers have dwindled in recent years and there’s no commercial harvest in Canada.

Some smoked salmon producers use farmed fish. But wild salmon is more flavourful and doesn’t carry the ecological stigma of farmed fish.

So Samson looked to our neighbours. After working the phones, he struck partnerships with First Nations able to supply wild sockeye from Haines, Alaska, and northern British Columbia.

As it happens, wild sockeye is already trucked from Haines down the Alaskan Highway to British Columbia. Some of the fish is later smoked in Vancouver—or as far afield as China.

That’s akin to selling raw lumber to overseas markets, then buying back as IKEA furniture. Much of the profit ends up being made somewhere else.

The Hartlands propose to do this value-added work in Whitehorse. They have big dreams of building an international distribution network.

At $30 per pound, their price is at the high end of the market. But the Hartlands boast their recipe can’t be beat.

“There’s just no comparison,” said Samson.

He deplores how low-grade smoked salmon is “like cat food.”

“I wouldn’t even feed it to a cat,” he said.

An associate producer who visited Whitehorse on a scouting tour in March made the unlikely comparison between their smoked salmon and chocolate. In both cases, he said he couldn’t stop snacking.

“He just kept on eating it,” said Samson with a laugh.

So, when they headed to Toronto, they were sure to pack plenty of samples.

Samson has long served as his father’s translator. He first spoke at age three, and by then, he was already adept at signing with his two deaf parents. “English was my second language,” he said.

It’s actually quicker for Samson to patter with his father with finger twitches and facial expressions than to carry on a conversation with his voice. Speaking “takes longer because I need to use all these funny words,” is how Lewis puts it.

“There’s a trust element. We actually become one. We feel equal.”

Their conversations are just as dependent on subtle facial cues as they are on finger signs. To both, a conversation with words alone seems bland and monotonous by comparison.

But the uninitiated sometimes misread Lewis’s expressiveness and think he’s agitated. “People think we’re giving attitude. But that’s our culture.”

The two are used to performing in front of a crowd. Lewis founded the Canadian Deaf Theatre and has two decades of stage experience. Samson, as a child, appeared in productions, too.

That didn’t mean they weren’t nervous when the cameras started to roll in CBC’s Toronto studio. But theatre experience “helps you handle that and channel your energy,” said Lewis.

You’ll have to tune in tonight at 8 p.m. to see how the Hartlands fare. But, judging by how they have invited reporters to attend a viewing party, it sounds as if they have something to celebrate.

Another sign of success is found on their website: they’re already taking preorders for the spring. You can find out more at www.yukonsmokedsalmon.ca.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.