‘I feel at peace’: Iqaluit inmates learn carving skills

Stone carving program at Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility allows experts, novices to practice craft

Full-time carver Tommy Takpanie Jr. works on one of his polar bear carvings in the outdoor carving yard of the Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility in Iqaluit. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

By Madalyn Howitt

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.

Carver Tommy Takpanie Jr. is known for his soapstone polar bears, the only animal he carves. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

“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.

Full-time carver Tommy Takpanie Jr. holds one of his signature polar bear carvings in the outdoor carving yard of the Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility in Iqaluit. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

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.

Daryl Quaraq sands a stone carving of an inuksuk in the outdoor carving yard of the Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility in Iqaluit. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

“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.”

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(16) Comments:

  1. Posted by 😂 on

    They are in jail for a reason and not a good one either 😂

  2. Posted by Blue mooner on

    Long time ago they sold these carvings in Rankin too. Wonder what happened?

  3. Posted by wow – how about OHS on

    Why is he not wearing safety protection for his hands and eyes? What about the hazardous dust he is breathing in?
    When he falls ill with lung problems or has a hand/eye injury – who will be responsible? – Will Lisa Churchill accept responsibility?
    Not too mention the grinder has safety guards removed.

    Being incarcerated doesn’t mean he cant have the right to be safe!
    Great initiative but please keep safety in mind

  4. Posted by Putting this out there on

    So is this program just about making money or also about helping heal and insure those that have made a mistake and end up in jail dont go back? of the 200-250 prisoners that have done this program is there a larger percentage that have not gone back to jail in 15 years (or ever) compared to the all the other inmates?

    • Posted by 99 Problems on

      Good question. Surprisingly, the Department of Justice does not track recidivism rates.

      • Posted by RU Addicted? on

        How does Justice know their programs are effective? Is optics enough for them?

  5. Posted by noona on

    If you or your daughter or son were raped, how stoked would you be to see their rapist’s face unexpectedly in a feel-good story in the local paper?
    Also, I’m all for rehabilitation, but this guy has been carving all these years, so is carving bears like he’s been doing all this time going to do much to rehabilitate him? Probably not. To get an actual one year sentence for anything is pretty difficult around here, so I don’t want to begin to imagine how awful it would have been for his victim(s).
    I once bought one of his bear carvings as a gift. Probably won’t be bragging about that anytime soon.
    He’s teaching others to carve, which is for. Maybe we can let him so that quietly, commend him privately, and not put his face in the paper for a while.

    • Posted by Ignorant on

      How about you stop being ignorant towards Inuit and understand that participating in cultural activities helps heal. The livelihood for artists is real, so when Tommy sells his carvings out in the real world, he is doing that for survival. In jail, he is healing himself and utilizing his skills. You have absolutely no right to judge him.

      • Posted by Healing, how? on

        How does it ‘heal’ a person though? I’m all for this activity, by the way. To be outdoors, to be doing work are good things for a persons mental health. Still, you are saying something different than that. Somehow this ‘heals’ him. What does that even mean, and how is this activity leading to that? I’m not sure I see it and i’m probably not alone in that.

        • Posted by Yo Pen’dejo on

          Same question. How?
          I can chop four notches on a rock and call it an Aboriginal ashtray and claim I’m “healed”?

      • Posted by Putting this out there on

        Since carving is his livelihood then what if his livelihood was being a taxi driver, finance clerk at GN, MLA, or RCMP (and they went to jail for something like assault) should they be able continue with their livelihood while in jail? they all have families that also need to be supported, perhaps families need to also hold family members accountable for their actions.

      • Posted by Juan Valdez on

        Can’t do the time?
        Don’t do the crime.
        “A bad childhood is no excuse for today’s bad behaviour…”
        -NWT judge.

  6. Posted by Putting this out there on

    Also unless these inmates truly learn to not do bad things and end up in prison again should we really be celebrating them… but this is Nunavut and we do love to forgive abusers and thief’s.
    Perhaps at least a large portion of the profit should be going to victim support programing.

    • Posted by Judas Henry on

      Stop babysitting the “poor criminal” and get real.
      Victims must feel scared cause the community blames them.
      Been there.
      “Pillars of the community” son figured he could do anything he wanted.
      Ended up in jail and his relatives (numerous/ came gunning for us) for having the audacity to call the R.C.’s on his son. (He’s allowed to do anything. He my boy!!)

  7. Posted by Aputi on

    Once they go home and they deal with life, they’ll just commit crime to be away from responsibility and be fed

  8. Posted by inung on

    trust worthy territory. in south prisons are dangerous criminals. here they are trust worthy. can use tools to make the day brigher.


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