I was on assignment in the Arctic for the Financial Post in 1999 when I stumbled across a small store in the old trading-post tradition. It sold cloth, thread, zippers, hides and pelts. One side was lined with parkas and the other with huge bolts of wool. In the back room, I caught a glimpse of women talking, laughing and cutting the heavy fabric. It turns out they were making the parkas and the parkas were extraordinary.

I tried on a few. Wow. Cut in traditional styles of the Western Arctic, the coats were surprisingly light and tight to the body with soft fur at the neck and wrists to stop the wind. The people who designed this Arctic wear hundreds of years ago knew what they were doing. The parkas were also stunning, decorated with scenes from everyday Northern life from dog-sledding and kayaking to polar bears and the Inukshuk, a traditional Inuit stone sculpture that is part of the official logo for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.

When I started talking to the shop's owner, I began to appreciate exactly how unusual this small business was. Here, it turned out, near the top of the world, some of Canada's newest peoples were working with some of its oldest peoples to carry on making centuries-old traditional styles of clothing.

My Hanh Ma and her husband had fled South Vietnam with their four small children in a wooden boat in 1980. Temporarily in a camp, they were told the Government of the Northwest Territories was willing to sponsor them. They jumped at the chance. My Hanh had no idea what the 'Arctic' was, and had never seen snow when she arrived in Yellowknife.

My Hanh learned English, and then worked as a seamstress in a store for 10 years to help support her family. She loved the Native styles, especially the parkas and started talking to local women about the patterns. She was soon making them by hand and selling them to the residents around Great Slave Lake, eventually saving enough to start her own business. Today, each parka is still hand cut and then taken home by a local seamstress for the finishing details. Pelts are selected to go with the parka, and the fur is sewn on by hand. The parkas are sold in Inuvik, Hay River, Yellowknife, Fort McMurray and Fort Simpson.

Some of the parkas are the traditional style, and others are the 'Mother Hubbard' style that date back to the missionaries' arrival in Canada's Western Arctic in the mid-1800s. The missionaries urged the Native women not to show their trousers. The women obliged by designing two-layer parkas with the outer shell characterized by a deep flounce along the bottom that makes it look like a dress (at least, a dress from the 1800s). Even today, the Mother Hubbard parka continues to be fashionable among Inuit, Dene and non-Native women in the Northwest Territories.

I bought one and was blown away by how light and warm and luxurious it was. People continually stopped me on the street asking where my parka came from. Many of those lucky enough to have travelled to Canada's Western Arctic have returned home with similar prized garments but thanks to mush! mush! these authentic hand-made parkas can be sent anywhere in the world.

We like to think of it as the modern trading-post tradition, one that has its roots in the Canadian mosaic.

Sandra Rubin

mush!mush! (Canada)

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