Some jobs in NL are threatened with extinction, and this heritage project wants to save them


In 2017, artists Diana Chisholm and David Dyck made these strings using a string machine they built themselves. (Diana Chisholm and David Dyck)

A new Heritage NL project seeks to save traditional Newfoundland and Labrador crafts from decline.

Terra Barrett, a researcher for the organization, says the skills and knowledge associated with endangered crafts, which include everything from making birch brooms and canning bark to sealskin work, constitute a precious intangible heritage that must be preserved.

Barrett said the purpose of the “at-risk craft” list is to teach “what a traditional craft is, what it contains and how it differs from a mass-produced item,” a- she declared.

As part of the project, Heritage NL consulted artisans from across the province to get a feel for practices that were flourishing and those that were on the way out.

Of the 54 documented traditions, more than 40 have been marked as endangered. Only one – the making of ropes – is considered extinct.

The practice flourished until the 20th century, with the Colonial Cordage Company operating a cable car on its eponymous thoroughfare in St. John’s.

This replica of a string machine by artists Diana Chisholm and David Dyck was presented in July at the Union House Arts Festival in Port Union, Newfoundland. (Diana Chisholm and David Dyck)

Diana Chisolm, a multidisciplinary artist born in Nova Scotia, got a glimpse of the importance of tradition when she presented a string machine replica this summer at the Union House Arts Festival in Port Union, Newfoundland.

“It’s interesting because every time we’ve featured it you hear stories of people remembering the process,” she said. “There are a lot of memories.”

A sign of the times

Barrett says the reason many traditions are fading is because better, more sustainable materials are developed.

Synthetic rope, for example, did not require the same maintenance during the winter.

Other traditions are lost due to the scarcity of resources, such as caribou fur and sinew used in traditional tufting and making snowshoes.

“Caribou hunting is not as common in Labrador as it used to be,” said Barrett. “If you cannot access this material which [tradition] could get lost. “

Consumer behavior also plays a role in preserving the tradition, Barrett said. That is why part of the aim of the project is to “make people aware of the time and energy that is devoted to craftsmanship, and that it may be worth what the craftsman asks for.”

The making of Wriggle fences is one of dozens of crafts marked “Critically Endangered”.

A traditional structure still present in many communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, corrugated fences are made from three long wooden stakes with vertical palisades woven through.

Last summer, a former Newfoundland resident requested a workshop to pass the valuable technique on to his children while visiting the province.

Requests like these give Barrett hope that the province’s precious traditions may not be as endangered as it seems.

“We wish we could move things on this list and find activities that are not extinguished,” she said. “We would love to be wrong.”

Read more about CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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