In praise of the common parka (National Post, March 30, 2005)

Every spring, a true Canadian's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of next year's winter coat.

In Montreal, where I live, winter often starts in early November and sometimes ends only in mid-May. We like to boast, in our perverse Canadian way, that we have seen snow on our Laurentian property during every month of the year except July.

Acquiring protective yet attractive winter outerwear is a serious business for us Quebecers. Unlike indoor clothes, our coats are worn day in, day out for six months straight. By March one usually longs to burn the discounted coat one bought last year only because it was the right size and 50% off. Let's face it, coats still languishing on the sales rack remain unsold for a reason.

Thus it didn't surprise me last week, when I felt a sudden yearning for a traditionally inspired, rugged parka, and made my dutiful round of the stores, that I was left brooding on the deficiencies of the discounted parka wannabees I saw, with their unflattering cuts, Michelin tire-man puffiness and mingy fake fur hood trims.

The winter coats I've committed myself to -- that is, those that made my heart leap the moment I tried them on and continued to give pleasure into their twilight years -- cost more than seemed reasonable at the time. But the price of my last beloved coat, an astronomical $400 in 1985, amortized over 20 winters, now seems quite modest in retrospect.

With this reassuring precedent in mind, I took myself to Kanuk, the Tiffany's of Quebec outerwear. Kanuk's classic styles are so timelessly appealing, they rarely discount, and even then only by a paltry 10%. It seems they count on people walking into their east end store (also their factory) near Mordecai Richler's fabled Rue Saint Urbain, there to gaze with wild surmise on the rich assortment of parkas mounted in endless rows of double-tiered racks, falling madly in love with one and surrendering their Visa card in a fugue of acquisition bliss. That, at any rate, was my experience.

Let me tell you about my new Kanuk parka, and the unexpected epiphany that accompanied it. Cut from soft and supple microfibre fabric, my parka is a kind of taupe-ish silver I've not seen before. It was the last of that colour available in my size, which I took as a sign it was destined for me. Knee length, with roomy vertical slide pockets, its line is classically simple and, considering its chill-repelling loft, mysteriously slimming.

For the optional fur hood trim, choice was available from a range of greys, golds and brown. I was quickly seduced by a glossy, blended smoke and salt length of silver fox. After the salesgirl attached it, and I drew the hood close around my face, its silky strands caressed my cheeks like extra long, flirty eyelashes. Ooooooh.

Fur shame! I know ... but when I saw my face in the mirror framed by that wimple of luxuriant fox, urban Montreal fell away, and I suddenly became a denizen of the Great White North. I beheld the frozen tundra in all its starkly pristine beauty, silent but for the plangent yodel of wolves, and the rhythmic crunch of a coureur du bois' mukluks, as he traversed the virgin crust to inspect his trap lines. Across my mind's eye, gliders hissing through the glittering snow, raced sleighs heaped with furs on their way to the Hudson Bay post, thence to be fixed in sepia eternity on the frontispiece of my first book of Canadian history.

Voila the key to Kanuk's success: Like countless others before me, I was hypnotized by Heritage Moment nostalgia kitsch.

Any lingering fur guilt was dissolved in a warm bath of ethical trade pride: No subcontinental urchin ever worked his fingers to the bone for 24 cents a day over my parka's grommets. On the contrary -- as reflected in the elevated cost of their product -- Kanuk employs Quebecois adults who, given the option of acquiring higher education for the lowest fees in North America in order to become librarians or periodontists, instead chose to fabricate parkas. My conscience is clear.

I would have worn the parka home, but it was an uncomfortably balmy day, a full three degrees above zero, while my parka is designed for a bracing zero to 25 below. Now I'll have to wait until at least next December to enjoy it. Ah well, mustn't grumble. Something to look forward to while I stoically endure the cloying humidity of our brutal Canadian summer, eh?

© National Post 2005