Meet Nunavik’s man of the machines
“If I can help someone use their sewing machine a little better, it lasts longer”
Michel Plante gets a celebrity’s welcome when he steps off his Air Inuit flights into airports across Nunavik—a flurry of hellos, hugs and dinner invitations.
He’s not your typical superstar. The 56-year-old doesn’t perform in front of crowds or save lives, and he wouldn’t be easily recognizable outside the region.
But Plante’s services are in high demand in Nunavik: the veteran sewing machine repairman has been touring the region’s communities as part of a Makivik Corp.-funded program for more than 17 years now, tasked with helping seamstresses tune up and clean out their machines, and replace any broken parts.
In a region where almost every household owns a sewing machine—if not several—the machine repairman’s visits can mean the difference between having to buy a new machine or not, or the ability to make new warm clothing for the family.
“Hi Michel—when are you leaving?” That’s typically the first question Plante hears, from seamstresses anxious to book an appointment to bring their machine to him while he’s in town.
“I keep telling people I’m like Santa Claus, because I come around once a year,” Plante said. “I get incredible smiles.”
That feeling is apparently mutual. Plante describes the “fuzzy feeling” he gets when he walks into the airport terminals and sees all the beautiful new parkas local seamstresses have created since his last visit.
Over the last two decades, Plante has been part of a growing network of support that Makivik Corp. has put in place for seamstresses, including the construction of sewing centres (misurvik) in each of the region’s 14 communities.
The skill and talent he’s seen among Nunavik’s seamstresses is something unique in Canada, Plante believes, making Nunavik an obvious draw for a sewing machine expert.
“The program is so important to Nunavimmiut,” said Elene Berthe, a seamstress from Tasiujaq who takes her machine to Plante on each visit.
“Before he came to the community, many good sewing machines were thrown away for simply having a faulty part,” she said.
“He has shown so many women how to fix their sewing machines instead of purchasing a new one, which allowed them to save a lot of money.”
Plante’s years of work in the region have earned him the moniker Mirsujuuliriji or “the man who does the machines.”
Sewing machines were a part of daily life for Plante growing up in a Franco-Ontarian family in New Liskeard, near Timmins. His father was the director of sales for Singer Canada in eastern Canada, so Plante spent much of his childhood in Singer stores and considers himself “self-taught” in his trade.
He moved to Quebec as a teen to take on a job as a sales rep for the company, which years later translated into a role as an education consultant, teaching Singer’s staff how to operate machines.
As for Makivik Corp.’s sewing machine repair program; well, that came to be almost by accident.
In 2000, the now-defunct Makivik subsidiary Nunavik Creations purchased a number of industrial sewing machines. Makivik Corp. hired Plante to visit Kangirsuk, Salluit and Inukjuak to set up the machines and teach the seamstresses how to use them.
“While I was there, with all my toolboxes, I offered to all the ladies to bring in their machines to tune up,” he said. “And that went over incredibly well.”
“Then a lady from Kangirsuk talked to her sister in Inukjuak, who wondered why the repair guy didn’t stop in her village?”
Makivik then saw an opportunity to provide support to the region’s many seamstresses and hired Plante to do regular repair tours, which he’s been doing now for close to 20 years.
He tours each coast once a year—typically the Hudson coast early in the year and Ungava just before Christmas—spending anywhere from a few days to a week in each community.
Plante said he’s been told that this is one of Makivik’s programs from which Nunavimmiut benefit the most, and the hundreds of machines he repairs each year are proof of that.
“I’m not here to teach anyone to sew—that’s not my gig,” said Plante, who is now based in Kuujjuaq.
“Where my expertise comes in is in the technique. If I can help someone use the machine a little better, it lasts longer.
“The sewing machines in the North are used more extensively,” he added. “They sew much more and [with] thicker materials. They make stuff for everyone in the family.”
Plante’s jovial and friendly nature are traits that have helped him forge a number of friendships across the region.
Plante made a quick connection with seamstresses in Kangiqsujuaq, recalled Mary Pilurtuut (Arngak), a local parks administrator there. She said the training sessions Plante offers when he visits are always well-attended.
“I first met him when he first came to Kangiqsujuaq to repair machines,” she recalled. “The Northern Village has brought an embroidery sewing machine and … a bunch of us ladies showed up to learn the new exciting machine.
“Michel is easy-going, welcoming, funny and he loves what he does,” she said. “And us ladies, we want our machines fixed and running well.”
In return, Plante said he’s been gifted bannock, country food and dinner invitations—enough to keep him coming back.
In 2019, Makivik Corp. said it’s planning to launch a sewing machine repair training program designed for and targeted to Nunavimmiut.