Handcrafted Inuvik parkas that sat for years in a Vancouver shelter find new home at Museum of Anthropology

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A parka handcrafted over 30 years ago near Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and anonymously donated to a shelter in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside has found a new home in the Museum of Anthropology's collection.

The blue parka is one of four old-style coats that had been sitting at the Union Gospel Mission for years until a staff member realized the significance of the tags labelling them as "handcrafted in the Canadian Arctic by the Inuvik Sewing Centre."

"It's a mystery to us how they ended up on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. This does not happen every day," said Rachael Allan, spokesperson for the mission.

The wool parkas were made over 30 years ago by women working in the northern sewing centre established as a co-operative in the 1960s to help create a local economy.

The blue parka was officially gifted to the Museum of Anthropology on Thursday and will join a collection of other pieces that were crafted across the North.

"Women in the North were creating, but they actually sold to the south," said museum curator Sue Rowley. "This is what the Inuvik Sewing Centre was known for."

Rowley says while the parkas were worn in the communities where they were made, the sizing tags inside these parkas shows they were created and sold for a non-indigenous audience.

"If you were making it for a family member, you would be making it specifically for them, so you wouldn't have a sizing."

Made for Arctic temperatures

Rowley says the coats' inner layer of mammal wool, a middle lining, and an outer layer of cotton make for an especially practical garment in Arctic regions.

"They're perfectly made for their environment," she said. "Something Indigenous Peoples have been doing for thousands of years is layering their clothing."

Each parka was uniquely embroidered by its creator with prints of ice fishing, dog sledding or hunting scenes. The lower half of the blue parka, for example, depicts a hunter dragging what looks like a seal or a beluga back home after a successful hunt, says Rowley.

The coat's trim is embroidered with a delta braid, named after the delta of the Mackenzie River, the longest river system in Canada. Rowley says the pattern was created and used by Inuvialuit and Gwich'in peoples.

Allan is happy that one of the parkas has found a home at a museum where it will be accessible to people of all backgrounds to see and learn about.

Union Gospel Mission hopes to find a new home for the remaining three parkas by donating them to Indigenous members of its community that have ties to the North.

"Inuvik is 200 kilometres north of the Arctic circle," she said. "It's coming so far from home, we want to see it given back to its roots."