‘I feel at peace’: Iqaluit inmates learn carving skills
Stone carving program at Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility allows experts, novices to practice craft
Veteran carver Tommy Takpanie Jr. sits in a corner of the ashy, fenced-in yard that’s part of the Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility in Iqaluit.
It’s an overcast day. A light layer of dust covers Takpanie’s coat and the sound of grinding metal pierces the air as he skillfully grazes a grinder over a small grey stone.
Two other inmates also sit in the yard, each working on their own stone carvings. Piles of soapstone pepper the ground and power tools and sanders sit perched atop benches and round worktables.
Takpanie is working on one of his signature polar bear carvings, many of which have been sold throughout Canada and as far away as Paris, France.
“I think every Iqalummiut has one of my polar bears,” he laughs.
The 59-year-old, a full-time carver, is one of the inmates in the Iqaluit jail’s stone-carving program.
It is one of about a dozen healing programs that also include addictions support and Inuit skills, overseen by acting deputy warden of programs and co-ordinator Lisa Churchill.
“It’s open to those who are willing to learn to carve, and it can also be used as a reintegration plan for those who want to carry that knowledge,” she said.
It’s also a way for Inuit inmates — some of whom are convicted of crimes and sentenced to jail, and others awaiting their day in court — to stay connected with traditional cultural practices while they are incarcerated.
“I see all different kinds of art that comes from carvers,” Churchill said, adding the program also helps teach traits such as patience.
A version of the stone-carving program has been running since the early 2000s at the jail, she said. The current program accepts about 15 inmates each year.
They get access to the carving materials for six weeks, and then new inmates are brought in on a rotating basis. Some inmates are able to repeat their participation in the program.
Experienced carvers like Takpanie can continue practising their craft while they are incarcerated, while novice carvers get the chance to learn new skills and watch the pros in action.
Takpanie is serving a one-year sentence for two counts of sexual assault.
He learned to carve from his father, Tommy Takpanie Sr. and has been “carrying on the family legacy” for more than 30 years, he says. His brother, Pauloosie Takpanie, was also a celebrated carver.
Carving has been both a livelihood for Takpanie, who mastered his craft for a decade in Kinngait before returning to his hometown of Iqaluit, and a practice that makes him “feel safe.”
“It’s what I do naturally,” he says, looking down at his outstretched hands.
“I feel at peace. Nobody bothers me.”
He uses power tools to carve the shape of his polar bears and a file to make smaller details in the head and face of each figure. A small carving usually takes him a day to carve and sand down until it’s smooth, although in his younger days he could carve “about 20 to 25” small polar bears in a day, he laughs.
He’s also sharing some advice with other inmates in the program who are new to carving, such as Daryl Quaraq, who’s been learning the craft for about three weeks.
“I just wanted to give it a shot,” Quaraq says. His great-uncle was a carver before he died earlier this year, and Quaraq wanted to learn too.
He also wants to make some money for his family in Pond Inlet while he’s in custody. Quaraq is awaiting trial on a second-degree murder charge.
Carvings made by the inmates are available for the public to purchase every Friday from 1:30 to 4 p.m. in the front entrance of the facility, on display in a glass case along with drawings and other artworks by inmates.
Eighty per cent of the sale price is returned to the inmate while 20 per cent goes back into buying tools and supplies for the program. Inmates are responsible for buying their own soapstone to carve but sometimes have access to scrap materials left over from other carvers.
“It’s good for us, instead of being inside we have something to do,” Quaraq says.
The 33-year-old says it’s been a challenge learning how to shape and sand the stone. So far, he has made some polar bears and inuksuit, applying advice he learned from Takpanie.
“It makes me proud of myself that I can make something,” Quaraq said.
Between 200 and 250 prisoners have gone through the carving program over the years since it was introduced.
It is currently only open to inmates in the minimum-security wing. Churchill, the jail’s deputy warden, said she hopes to expand it to also include those in medium security.
She’s also considering hiring a carving teacher to help the program develop even further.
Churchill’s favourite carvings are the ones made by first-time carvers.
“I can see how much of a difference it makes to see somebody’s art,” she said.
“Every one of them is unique. Every one of them has their own story to share. I like seeing all those lit-up faces when they finish their first-ever carving.”