At the Yellowknife jail, inmates gather around to watch trapper Donovan Boucher expertly prepare a lynx, pushing his skinning knife away from the pelt.
The inmates are in a new program being piloted by the North Slave Correctional Centre and the Northwest Territories’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) to teach participants about trapping, trip planning, survival and machine repair.
Most of all, it’s a change of pace for men at the jail.
“To see something like this happening is good for your mind. You’re not thinking of other stuff,” said one inmate.
Once he’s released, he can’t wait to go help his uncle on the land, he said.
The room is filled with laughter and people are telling stories — one of the inmates remarks that it “feels like real life.”
In order to visit the program, the CBC agreed to not name inmates to comply with the Department of Justice’s privacy concerns.
Some participants told the CBC about their lives before incarceration, like one experienced hunter from Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region who woke up excited to see what animals they would be skinning.
He’s thinking about the time he got a 700-pound polar bear.
“We go travelling by snowmobile and tow a sled. The whole town writes down their name to get a draft for a polar bear tag and I was one of them.”
He can skin a polar bear in three and a half hours, he told the CBC.
“They should have more programs like this even during the summer, spring … winter is the best,” he said.
Everett McQueen, a traditional counsellor and liaison officer at North Slave Correctional Centre, says the program creates a “good atmosphere.”
“We joke around, we laugh, and it gets [out] the day-to-day stress. They come in here and seem to have a different attitude.”
Trapper Scott McQueen tells stories the whole afternoon about his upbringing and what it takes to trap today.
For many trappers, he explains, this means participating in the “mixed-economy” to live a traditional lifestyle while earning wages to support trapping.
“There’s so much work to do as a trapper,” said Scott McQueen, adding that it’s best to start early in the morning.
When the light is starting to show over the ice fog, “that’s when you want to be trapping on your trail — smokin’ daylight,” he said.
Scott McQueen said the program is bringing participants to share stories and connect with memories of family and heritage, like one participant who spoke about harvesting willow-root to weave traditional fishnets.
“I encouraged him to also go back to his community and do those activities,” he said. “That knowledge is really important.”
“We’re trying to recapture that good feeling people had of being able to harvest everything they needed — your food, clothing, shelter and heat.”
In one of several sessions held since January, participants had a fire outdoors in an open area.
“One guy was looking up at the sky, ‘Oh that’s nice to look at the blue sky without a chain-link fence above you,'” said Scott McQueen.
Typically, inmates’ outdoor activity is enclosed completely with a chain-link fence, he said.
Carl Williams is another of the trappers teaching at the jail. He said his dad worked with the Hudson’s Bay Company and taught him everything he knows.
Williams works with one inmate on a fox and another on a squirrel, while passing along tips.
He shares how he skins and stretches wolverine for fur trim, leaving the feet attached because it’s most popular as a trim.
Some of the program participants already know how to prepare animals, and some are learning from the very beginning, he said.
One inmate told CBC that the program is good for someone who has never worked on pelts.
“That’s a new experience for me. I never seen that through my whole life. It’s my first time I ever seen stuff like this skinned in front of me,” he said.
Vincent Casey, an education outreach co-ordinator with ENR, said the pilot program was designed to reach as many people as possible, which is why sessions are held monthly and not packed into a single week.
Inmates may be in and out of jail, or have court dates, and so spreading the programming out means more people can attend.
Since the program began, around 40 inmates have dropped in to at least one session, like trip planning and survival, skinning, preparing pelts for auction and introducing them to the Mackenzie Valley Fur program.
“Any programming that allows people to connect meaningfully to what they want their life to be or what their life was before they came to jail is a really big thing,” said Casey.
Casey was previously a teacher at the jail and said it can be difficult to imagine what your future will look like when you are in jail.
Teaching outdoor skills like machine repair, tent setup and trapline setting are tangible skills that men can take with them when they leave.
“It allows the inmates to think about home in a meaningful way.”