‘It feels like real life’: Trappers teach NWT inmates land skills in pilot program

At the Yellowknife Jail, inmates gather to watch trapper Donovan Boucher expertly prepare a lynx, keeping his skinning knife away from the skin.

Inmates are taking part in a new program piloted by the North Slave Correctional Center and the Northwest Territories Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) to teach participants about trapping, trip planning, survival and machinery repair.

Above all, it’s a change of pace for the men in prison.

“Seeing something like this happen is good for your mind. You don’t think about anything else,” one inmate said.

Once released, he looks forward to helping his uncle in the field, he says.

The room is filled with laughter and people telling stories – one of the inmates remarks that it “feels like real life”.

An inmate at the North Slave Correctional Center works on a fox skin. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Boucher, from Rocher River, Northwest Territories, is a trapper who passes on his knowledge to inmates at the North Slave Correctional Centre. What they will learn in the program will be one more activity to undertake when they leave the institution. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

In order to tour the program, the CBC agreed not to name the inmates in order to comply with the Department of Justice’s confidentiality concerns.

Some participants told the CBC of their life before their incarceration, like an experienced hunter from the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut who woke up excited to see what animals they were going to butcher.

He thinks of the time he had a 700 pound polar bear.

“We go on a snowmobile and tow a sled. The whole town writes his name to get a draft for a polar bear tag and I was one of them.”

It can skin a polar bear in three and a half hours, he told CBC.

“They should have more programs like this even in summer, spring…winter is the best,” he said.

Trappers brought bone scrapers to show inmates how to flesh hide. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Boucher skins a lynx to taxidermy standards during a prison seance. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Everett McQueen, traditional counselor and liaison officer at the North Slave Correctional Centre, says the program creates a “good atmosphere”.

“We joke, we laugh, and it becomes [out] everyday stress. They come here and seem to have a different attitude.”

Trapper Scott McQueen said the program is also about sharing stories and rekindling the memories people have of family and heritage. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Trapper Scott McQueen tells stories all 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 way of life while earning a salary to support trapping.

“There’s so much work to do as a trapper,” Scott McQueen said, adding that it’s best to start early in the morning.

When light starts to appear on the icy fog, “that’s when you want to trap on your trail – smoke daylight,” he said.

Scott McQueen said the program leads participants to share stories and connect with memories of family and heritage, such as one participant who spoke about harvesting willow roots to weave traditional fishing nets.

“I encouraged him to also go back to his community and do these activities,” he said. “That knowledge is really important.”

The murals in the art room of the North Slave Correctional Center are full of references to land and animals. (Avery Zingel)

“We’re trying to get back that nice feeling that people had of being able to harvest whatever they needed – your food, your clothes, your shelter and your warmth.”

In one of many sessions held since January, participants made a fire outside in an open space.

“A guy was looking up at the sky, ‘Oh it’s nice looking at the blue sky without a chain-link fence above you,'” Scott McQueen said.

Typically, inmates’ outdoor activities are completely surrounded by a chain-link fence, he said.

Carl Williams guides an inmate scratching a rather fat fox. “He must have been caught in town,” he jokes. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Williams, who was raised by a Hudson’s Bay Company trapper, teaches people how to prepare pelts to market standards. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Carl Williams is another trapper who teaches at the prison. He said his father worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and taught him everything he knew.

Williams works with an inmate on a fox and another on a squirrel, while passing on advice.

He recounts how he skins and stretches the wolverine for fur trim, leaving the feet attached as this is most popular as trim.

Some of the program participants already know how to prepare the animals, and some are learning from the start, he said.

An inmate told CBC the program is good for someone who has never worked on skins.

“It’s a new experience for me. I’ve never seen this in my whole life. It’s the first time I’ve seen stuff like this skinned in front of me,” he said.

Murals in the art room of the North Slave Correctional Centre. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

Vincent Casey, Education Outreach Coordinator at ENR, said the pilot program was designed to reach as many people as possible, which is why sessions are held monthly and not just on one. week.

Inmates may be in and out of prison, or have court dates, and so airing the programming means more people can attend.

Since the program began, approximately 40 inmates have participated in at least one session, such as trip planning and survival, butchering, preparing pelts for auction, and their introduction to the Mackenzie Valley fur program.

“Any programming that allows people to connect in a meaningful way with what they want their life to be or what their life was like before they got to prison is a really big thing,” Casey said.

Casey was previously a teacher at the prison and said it can be hard to imagine what your future will be like when you’re in prison.

Teaching outdoor skills like repairing machinery, pitching tents, and setting traplines are tangible skills the men can take with them when they go.

“It allows inmates to think about home in a meaningful way.”