HOME HEARTSTRING 6: MANUAL SKILL

“His hands were like a set of tools.”

“Handiwork was the hobby of choice during the long winters,” wrote 18th century French journalist and historian Pierre Deffontaines. “Habitants have a special space in their home, the shop, where they like to do smaller jobs to keep busy in winter.”

“…What was crafted by hand was valuable once more.”

“First of all,” wrote Hector Grenon in Us et Coutumes du Québec (Quebec Habits and Customs), “we’ve come to realize that in many cases our ancestors had to invent a lot of the tools we use, or at the very least they had to greatly improve what they had at the time and adapt them to our conditions and climate. We used these modified tools every day to perform crucial tasks that could never have been completed otherwise.”

A bunch of dabblers and tinkerers, our ancestors designed their tools simply by looking at illustrations in early American catalogues.

Léon Guérin went so far as to say that the fact that habitants were self-sufficient is the true miracle behind our survival. It’s our Système D (resourcefulness) at its best!

Joe explains that Heartstring 6 is what enabled his family to survive during the Crash of 1929:


“I was 13 at the time. We moved to Montreal in an apartment above a shoe store on Mont-Royal Avenue. We were really worried. Potatoes don’t grow on sidewalks in the city.

We all started looking for work, except for Jean-Louis, the youngest. If you didn’t know how to use your hands, you were pretty much screwed. The only people working were the handymen, the jacks-of-all-trades. My father reinvented himself as a tram-generator repairman. I did snow removal and building maintenance. Families and neighbours helped each other out.

My grandfather stayed on the farm so he would send us corn and beef quarters when he could, which wasn’t often. My mother went to church every morning so she wouldn’t despair. She knew how to use her hands, too. She made all our clothes. She would mend and patch them, and she could knit as well. She also made all our food from scratch, like bread and pouding chômeur (poor-man’s pudding). She was way too proud to ask for social assistance.

I think someone from the St. Vincent de Paul came to our house once when my brother was sick one winter. In the end my mother made one of my grandmother’s remedies for my brother – I can’t remember what it was – and he got over his illness.”


Our resourcefulness obviously stems from our Earth Root. The man of the earth has to fix everything as best he can, often using baling wire (that’s where the Quebec expression broche à foin, meaning sloppy or cheap, comes from) for lack of more suitable materials. He would also fiddle with the mechanics of the reaper-binder, the milking machine, the tractor generator and the big Chrysler’s cooling system on Sundays.

To this day, even in the city, Quebecers are carpenters, woodworkers, plasterers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics...and so on. A dozen trades, thirteen miseries.

Naturally, Quebecers feel at home and love to shop in hardware and home improvement stores, two sectors of retail that French Canadian merchants do very well in.

Marguerite Tremblay and her retired-engineer husband (no relation to our Joe), run a company that turns the ideas of Quebec inventors into cold hard cash. Here’s what she told told reporter Jean-Guy Duguay about her work:


“The way we make our living proves Quebecers are ingenious and resourceful. However, they don’t always have the capital or the experience required to develop and launch their projects on their own.”


A few Quebec inventions have become the stuff of legends. There’s the Bombardier snowmobile, the mechanical chainsaw designed by the Tanguay family of Roberval and the Vachon line of cakes.

Quebec men are fascinated by machines of any kind. Admiring the size of engines and figuring out why their cars backfire are just a couple of ways for them to give in to one of their basic passions: taking machines apart and putting them back together again.

Young Quebecers who like to take their toys apart are referred to as iron breakers. That’s all fine and good, but let’s not forget it helps them develop their manual skills.

We have a tendency to buy things that run on motors like they’re going out of style, such as lawnmowers, chainsaws, electric toothbrushes, snowmobiles, outboard motors and motorcycles. Our passion for tinkering easily explains our love of stock car racing with its big old wrecks that purr right along with just the right turn of the screw. These Frankencars may be built out of mismatched parts, and they might look funny to outsiders because of all the accessories that are tacked on, but that’s irrelevant because it makes thousands of small-town Quebecers as happy as anyone has a right to be.

Quebecers are highly creative and innovative. Just look at our master blacksmiths, foundrymen and tinkerers with engineering degrees who end up making American moon rocket launching pads. And let’s not forget our folk and pop artists like Arts Council fellow Ernest Gendron who is, “the only man in the world to have completed 30 oil paintings using the same toothpick.” We truly are a gifted people.

A fairly recent book by Lise Nantel, Les patenteux du Québec (Quebec Tinkerers), and a monthly magazine with a circulation of 88,560 copies, Le Bricoleur (The Handyman), are devoted entirely to this Heartstring.

And it would be a really wonderful, practical Heartstring if it didn’t sometimes get tangled up with Heartstring 19.

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© 2014 – English translation and website by Lawrence Creaghan. Published online with the permission of Guérin Éditeur Ltée and the Fondation Jacques-Bouchard.