Discovering Nunavik, stitch by stitch

Discovering Nunavik, stitch by stitch

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Ruby Pratka

Michel Plante isn’t hard to spot in the Charlesbourg Tim Hortons where he sometimes hangs out on his increasingly rare trips south. Despite the howling wind outside, he’s the only one dressed in full Inuit hunting attire – an embroidered, down-stuffed parka with a wide hood and massive fur-lined mittens.

The clothes are in-kind tips from Nunavik seamstresses whose sewing machines Plante has kept running for most of the last two decades.

Growing up, Plante was always a bricoleur. But he never imagined that his talent for taking things apart and putting them back together again would take him to the northernmost reaches of the Canadian Arctic.

“My father sold and repaired Singer sewing machines in New Liskeard, Ontario, where I grew up. At the shop, I would always be running around, asking ‘What’s this? What’s that?’ To get me out of his hair, my father would send me to the basement with a bunch of parts to clean. As I got older, I followed him on repair jobs all through northern Ontario and northwestern Québec. No one ever really sat me down and told me, ‘This is how you fix that,’ but it’s all a big puzzle. If you pay attention, you can usually figure it out. At 16, I got an actual job as a stock boy, and I never left the company. Next year, it will be 40 years.”

Plante discovered northern Québec in 2000, when a Nunavik sewing co-operative purchased industrial machines for three communities. “When the industrial machines were installed, they had to send a technician up to teach the local seamstresses how to use them. When I went up, people said, ‘My home machine is broken; what do I do?’ I told them I would come back and look at their home machines. Parallel to that, in those first three villages, ladies who went to the training session would talk to their relatives, who would say, ‘Why didn’t they come to my village?’ I was told that there was demand –  did I want to do a tour? Absolutely. I started going up three times a year, taking all my tools and visiting seven or eight fly-in-fly-out villages each time. In 2016, I only spent three weeks in the South. I take more planes than buses.”

“On my first visit, I had no idea what it would be like, but I love meeting new people and learning new things, so I was all for it. They asked me if I wanted to stay in hotels or be boarded with families, and I chose boarding, so I was integrated from the beginning. The first evening in the sewing centre, it was dinnertime and the dinner table was covered with supplies. So everyone sits down on the floor, and someone started whacking at a frozen Arctic char [local fish] to feed everyone. I loved that; that was where it started.”

The same blue-and-white flags fly over public buildings in Nunavik as over the Assemblée Nationale. But that’s where the similarities end. “It’s an absolute other world,” Plante says with a broad smile. “Throw away your watch. If the plane doesn’t come in when it’s scheduled, it can’t. There’s no need to cry about it. There are two bosses, the weather and your bladder. There are no Tim Hortons or McDonald’s. There’s nothing wrong with country food with a lot of fat in it; that keeps you warm.”

Plante trains seamstresses and fixes sewing machines, but he’s adamant that learning is a two-way street. “I know my stuff, but there’s a lot more I can learn from them,” he says. “How do you dress to stay warm? How do you hunt seal? By staying very still for four hours over a blowhole with a harpoon in your hand, that’s how you hunt seal.”

“These ladies have been living and working and sewing here for many years; they just don’t know how to use this or that extension on a sewing machine. Once they learn, four days’ work sewing a tent can be done in a few hours. I do get paid, and sometimes I get country food as tips, but the smiles are the best. The ladies are happy because they’ll be able to use their machines, and the guys are getting new clothes.”

Plante plans on moving to Nunavik permanently, once the house he’s building on a friend’s land is complete. “My life is there more than it is here.”

Repairing sewing machines is no longer Plante’s only job. He has learned to work with sled dogs, accompanies tourists, unloads baggage at village airports and has even put in the occasional shift in a radio DJ booth, with his learner’s Inuktitut. Reporters and other visitors from the South occasionally join him and his friends on sled runs. He tries to show the visitors the North that he knows and loves.

“The North is not all about alcoholism and high food prices and kids in foster care. When reporters come up for four days to report on a crime or on a dogsled race, there’s a lot they don’t see. They don’t see a fisherman bringing fish around to his elderly neighbours. They don’t pick up on the rough beauty of the landscape.”

His advice for Southerners curious about the North is simple: “Go there. Just breathe, exist, recognize you’re somewhere else and don’t act like you would back home. My logic is, I’ll eat what you feed me, learn your language and dress like you. If you walk into my shop, you’ll do what I say; if I walk into your shop, I’ll do what you say.

They’ve been there for 5,000 years, so who am I to tell them anything?”
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About Author

Ruby Pratka

Ruby Pratka grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, studied in Ottawa and took the roundabout way to Quebec City via Russia, Slovenia, France, Switzerland, Belgium and East Africa. In addition to writing for LifeinQuebec.com and Life in Québec Magazine, she also contributes to other media outlets in English and French. She enjoys keeping a close eye on international affairs, listening to good music and singing in large groups.

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