Inmates at the Yellowknife jail concentrate as they skin several squirrels, deftly moving their knives to remove the small animals’ soft fur, then scraping the remaining flesh and fat away.
Surrounded by murals featuring eagles and wolves, the more experienced men offer tips to their peers.
Roy Inuktalik, who is Inuvialuit and from Ulukhaktok, said he’s been hunting and trapping since he was five years old, but this is his first time skinning a squirrel.
“It was a good experience,” the 32-year-old said.
“I’m always willing to learn anything new. We learn new things everyday.”
Skills such as hunting, trapping and preparing animal pelts are traditionally passed from generation to generation, Inuktalik said, and it’s something he plans to keep on doing.
“The skills that I’ve learned today will be locked into my memory.”
Every two weeks, experienced trappers lead classes at the North Slave Correctional Complex teaching inmates outdoor skills from how to set traps to snow machine repair and survival skills.
The program, which began as a pilot last year, is offered through a partnership with the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“This program is really great. It’s helped me rejuvenate my soul and keeps me nice and calm and happy,” Inuktalik said. “I like to learn different traditions and help keep them going strong.”
Vincent Casey, education outreach coordinator with the department, said the program empowers inmates and it helps many of them reconnect with their culture.
“A lot of the individuals who participate in the program have done this in the past,” he said. “It’s providing that connection, providing those skills and refreshing those skills … It’s empowering because they have this knowledge and they just need it to sort of percolate back up to the top.”
Casey said when the program started, about five people attended, but now up to 20 inmates can come to the classes.
The territorial jail is the largest correctional facility in the N.W.T. with the capacity to hold up to 148 adults and 25 youth. However, the number of people behind bars has been historically low over the past few years partly due to efforts to decrease COVID-19 risks.
Inmates can have minimum to maximum security ratings and may be serving sentences under two years or awaiting trial.
Longtime trapper Carl Williams demonstrated how to prepare a fox pelt for sale, carefully handling it’s crinkling paper-thin skin, brushing its fur and pinning its ears. He says the fresh pelt was a “city fox” that was caught in Yellowknife, meaning it has more fat than animals that live in the bush.
“They had a good life,” he said.
The inmates end the class by roasting bannock on a stick over a crackling fire outside, a popular outdoor snack in the North, and enjoying the flame-cooked bread with butter and jam.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Emily Blake, The Canadian Press