Magical times, new words, and fancy pastries: defining a new world

  1. The sun sets quickly and strangely in Mistissini. Once it’s gone, the sky stays lit for longer than one might expect. This is called twilight, of course; I have also learned that there are phases of twilight . . . three, in fact! (Civil, Nautical and Astronomical) So while the days are a little shorter by about a quarter hour here north of the 50th parallel, twilight is longer. A fascinating, magical time of day.
  2. In Mistissini itself, one gets by just fine communicating in English – even in the workplace where there is a fair bit of French. On the other hand, in Chibougamau (an hour away and the go-to for a bigger grocery selection), you’d better dig out your French. When it comes to Cree, there’s no demand for it, but the way I see it, why wouldn’t you try to learn the language of the gracious people who are sharing their land with you?
  3. Almost every grocer and convenience store in Quebec sells amazing pastries. Even the Twinkies are different in Quebec!
  4. There are probably more friendly people per capita in Mistissini than anywhere else in the world! The Cree word for “Welcome” is “Wachiya” – and it is the unwritten mantra of almost every local person I’ve met.
  5. Mistissini means Big Rock. There’s too much snow to find the rock to which the name refers.
  6. Snowshoes are a helpful accessory.
  7. There’s a lot in a name – this land used to be called Baie-James (so named by the Quebec government) but a few years ago (2012) the government allowed the Cree Nation to rename the land Eeyou Istchee (pronounced just how it looks). It means Land of the People.
  8. Eeyou Istchee James Bay Territory

    There are nine communities of Crees within Eeyou Istchee, which extends from Mistissini north to Whapmagoostui (Great Whale) on Hudson Bay and west to the communities of Eastmain and Wemindji on James Bay. About half of the communities are coastal.  I will travel to all of them.

  9. There’s another community that wants to join the Eeyou Istchee population: The MoCreebec are Eastern Cree who live on the other side of the Quebec/Ontario border. Because they did not live on the Quebec side, they were left out of the treaty agreement of the 1970s. They have now the backing of the Cree Nation in their fight for the right of recognition as Eastern Cree, despite where they live. Read More The logistics of what this will mean governance-wise have yet to be worked out.  Read here about another group of Eastern Cree – Washaw Sibi – that has been fighting for a similar right.
  10. There’s so much more to pronunciation than simply sounding out the word. For example, Mistissini is often mispronounced Mih-Stih-SIN-ee when in fact, it is a Cree word, pronouced with Cree inflection as Miss-TIH-sih-nee, with the last two syllables slurred together.  Nemaska is mispronounced Neh-MASS-ka, when it is really called NEH-muss-kuh. Chisasibi is not Chih-sah-SIH-bee, but rather Chih-SAH-sih-bee, with the final two syllables slurred.

Five lessons from an night of improv

One of the fringe benefits of belonging to the Peterborough Pop Ensemble is the chance to grow personally through various workshops. One such workshop, facilitated by Ray Henderson and Dan Smith of The Improv Experience, was focused on improv, or improvisation. It’s a form of live theatre in which the story is made up as you go. As a form of team-building, improv can be a valuable tool to help draw out personality and build trust. Here are five things that I learned from a night of improv with my fellow choristers:

  1. Listening is, by far, the greatest asset we all have when we are a member of a team. If you listen, you learn and when the time comes, your responses will be relevant.
  2. Appearances can be deceiving: those who seem outgoing may have more trouble with improv than those who are generally quiet in a group.
  3. Being playful can be liberating. Simply allowing silliness into the room is the first step in being vulnerable, which is, in turn, the first step in relationship-building.
  4. Working together is harder than it looks. For example, you never have any idea what your partner may say or do, but when the goal is to continue at all cost, you have no choice but to trust them, and more importantly, trust own response.
  5. Laughing til you almost pee actually causes a great deal of tension in your cheeks – good tension – but it also takes a vast amount of energy. You go home utterly spent!


The irony of the contemporary knitting craze

Recently, I was looking into the history of knitting, prompted by a freelance story I was asked to write. I discovered reams of information about this craft that, by all accounts, seems to be making a contemporary comeback.

For example, I was reminded of the legends in which knitting figures prominently:  Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey who avoided remarriage while Odysseus was fighting the Trojan war by promising she would choose a suitor once she finished weaving a shawl; she just made sure she unravelled the shawl each night, so it was never finished. There was also Arachne and Athena who engaged in a weaving duel . . . Arachne, being mortal, was no match for Athena and took her own life in shame. The goddess Athena resurrected Arachne out of pity — in the form of a spider so she could spend the rest of her life weaving.

I also uncovered an entirely different craft, somewhat akin to knitting. Nålbinding precedes knitting in history, and while it is done with just one needle, the fabric it produces is almost identical to a knit fabric.

But what struck me most about the origins of knitting was the reminder that knitting was so rarely a solitary activity. From its earliest entry on the European stage, knitters gathered as guilds. Early in the history of the craft, about 1268 (there is evidence of knitting having spread to Europe via Spain from Egypt in the years following 1000 AD), there was an active guild of knitters in Paris. By 1514, knitters were one of six leading guilds in Paris, according to historians, likely quite influential. By 1590, Germany had its first knitting guild. Becoming a member of a knitting guild required expert skill. You began as an apprentice, continued as a journeyman travelling to other towns to study the craft and knitting up a storm, and eventually – if deemed qualified – became a master knitter.

Like many crafts and industries, the history of knitting is indelibly linked to other inventions and trends. A mechanical knitting machine invented in 1589 by the Englishman William Lee was commonplace by the 1700s, and, alongside that invention and its derivatives was the trend toward knitted stockings and other knitwear. The trend fed the movement toward mass production, eventually, leaving the hand-knitting guildsmen to either conform to factory knitting techniques or forfeit their craft.

knitting-33232_1280.pngA fortunate consequence of the First World War was the effort by women and children to knit large quantities of warm accessories for Allied troops. Before this, knitting guildsmen were men; the craft was rarely practised by women. At the same time as women hit the knitting scene, the media began to play a crucial role in disseminating easy patterns for mass use. Following the war, by the 1920s, the fashion trend was knitwear, especially sweaters, and later neckties. Its popularity is evident in the modeling of Coco Chanel in Vogue magazine, which also featured patterns. By the 1950s, girls were being taught to knit in school.

From its origins as a high-skilled (guildsman) craft to home craft/hobby that included women, knitting has depended on the fashion trend of the day and the ease of sharing patterns and skills. In today’s revival of knitting, designers are keeping a close eye on trends, while guilds are replaced by knitting circles, classes, and knit-a-longs. The internet has taken care of the requirement to learn the skill: YouTube is a beginner knitter’s best friend. It has also played a paramount role in making reams of patterns available on a mass scale through sharing sites such as

Strangely, the revival of knitting seems to come not just as mass media promotes its availability, but also as its enthusiasts strengthen their tie to traditional hand-knitting techniques. Perhaps this is because, as crafters, knitters are more prone to see emerging technology as a tool to preserve their art, rather than a tool to save time or make money.