Mushmush grew out of the most unlikely circumstances.
I was on assignment in the Arctic for the Financial Post in January 1999 when one afternoon, story finished, I decided to go out exploring and stumbled across a small store in the old trading-post tradition.
The store sold cloth, thread, zippers, trim, hides, pelts, moccasins and gloves. Towards the back, one side was lined with parkas and the other side had huge rolls of heavy wool bolted to the wall. 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 was 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 to be sewn and 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. But they are not sold "down South," as the Northerners would say.
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 Mushmush, these authentic hand-made parkas can now 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.
(Please note: Because the parkas are hand cut and sewn, there may be limited production.)