Pelts at a trapper training program at the North Slave Correctional Complex. Caitrin Pilkington/Cabin Radio
Organizers are celebrating the opening year of a program that pairs Yellowknife’s jail with the NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources to teach inmates trapping skills.
Staff at the North Slave Correctional Complex say interest in the workshops continues to grow. Trapping sessions for inmates now run every two weeks in six-week cycles.
“One year ago, things were really different,” said participant Kristijan Bradaric. “It was just the leisure room and the gym. But this was the program that started to change things. There’s more activities available now.”
Carl Williams, the program’s instructor, has been trapping since he was 10 years old. His father worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He raves about the support that’s offered through ENR for trappers like him, and said the Genuine Mackenzie Valley Fur Program is the only one of its kind in North America.
“I was born in the Yukon, but we moved here in ’71 because of this program,” Williams said. “Whether you’re making a living off it, whether it’s a hobby, you’re learning a tradition that’s been passed on.”
As part of the day’s session, Williams offers tips to enhance each pelt’s success at auction, such as brushing out the fur and pinning back the animal’s ears.
“This is a city fox, so it’s fatty – it ate well,” said Williams. “It also doesn’t have guard hairs in its fur. Was probably living someplace warmer, like under a building.”
Without guard hairs, the pelt will look flat and fetch less on the market. Williams said these tricks of the trade aren’t always taught by ENR, and must be passed on from trapper to trapper.
A lynx intended for the program didn’t defrost in time, so organizers pivoted to squirrels for the hands-on part of the session. It quickly becomes clear that several participants haven’t shown up to learn, but to put existing skills to use. When handed a knife and a squirrel, some begin skinning expertly, giving pointers to the beginners.
“The last thing I skinned was a polar bear,” said one participant with a grin. “So this is an adjustment. But it turns out you skin squirrels the same way, just a lot smaller.”
For Vincent Casey, program founder and public education coordinator for NSCC, giving inmates an opportunity to show off their expertise is part of the program’s success.
He said that while it can be difficult for organizers to figure out which programs are going to connect with inmates, within a few months of running the Trapper Training program, it was clear the sessions were resonating with participants.
“Over the summer, we did a fish prep session and it was more than just the instructor teaching,” said Casey. “The inmates, or the participants, were getting up and sharing their knowledge of how they do different things.”
He describes participants learning that people cut up the same fish differently in the Beaufort Delta than they do in Fort Smith, and connections forming over shared memories of fishing with family.
“They weren’t just sitting and watching, they were confident enough to speak up and to share their experiences, which is what I had really hoped would happen.”
Reminders and reconnection
Casey said he was motivated to create the program after comments made in the NWT legislature by Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland, who called for more cultural programming in correctional centres in 2021.
According to the most recent annual report by the territory’s Department of Justice, while Indigenous residents make up 50 percent of the population, 83 percent of incarcerated men in NWT prisons are Indigenous. This is the same percentage Cabin Radio reported in 2020, the year Canada’s correctional investigator found that Indigenous adults make up more than 30 percent of the country’s prison population.
Austin Corbett, a criminal lawyer practising in Alberta and the NWT, told Cabin Radio in 2022 that many sentencing options aren’t being adequately used, calling jail “the bluntest hammer” to deal with many social issues.
But until courts take a different approach, prison programs try to minimize the damage done when Indigenous inmates are separated from family, friends and culture.
“We work very closely with a traditional counsellor here, and he’s constantly hearing good things from inmates about the program and how it’s impacted them,” said Casey. “A lot of the comments are about how this program reminds them of youth, or becoming reconnected with a part of themselves they hadn’t felt for a while.”
For many participants, the most significant barrier to hunting and trapping is not a lack of skill and experience, but the 12-foot barbed-wire fence that surrounds the correctional centre.
The second half of the workshop takes place just inside it, where inmates who have volunteered to help run the program have built a fire for the others. Before long, people have gathered to cook bannock and tease each other over technique.
“This is nice,” said one participant with a smile. “I haven’t been outside in a long time.”