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Kid craftsmen

Aupaluk’s at-risk students make wares that sell

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Making soap and stained glass are not traditional Inuit activities – but in Aupaluk, students at Taqsakallak School’s new in-house work program embrace these activities and produce eye-catching creations.

The program, the only one of its kind in Nunavik, gives high school students at risk of dropping out a chance to learn new skills, gain work experience and earn money.

An offer to launch this unique program, called the “work experience group,” is what convinced teacher Jean-Louis Gagnon to remain with the Kativik School Board and come to Aupaluk this year.

“It’s the only thing that made me eager to come to Aupaluk, because honestly, I had decided not to return north,” he says.

Thanks to money from stay-in-school programs, Taqsakallak School was able to buy the supplies and equipment needed to kick-start the program’s three school-based student businesses: making soap, stained glass and metal sleds for four-wheelers. The student participants in these ventures are paid by the sales and end up with skills.

Even before the start of the 2006-07 school year, Gagnon and Luc Dionne, a physical education teacher and welder, started renovations on an old trailer, once the Kativik Regional Police Force station, for a workshop. Student Samwillie Grey helped with the finishing touches.

Gagnon also made sure the program would have a good supply of glass of different colours to use for stained glass production. This order missed the sealift to the community, and had to be flown to Aupaluk, making this purchase almost as expensive to transport as buy – but it was well worth it, Gagnon says.

Gagnon’s partner, Michelle Fortin, who is also an artist, shipped up glycerine, both coloured and transparent, as well as a variety of coloured liquids, fragrances and spices to be used in the soap making.

But why soap and stained glass?

“We needed to do projects that didn’t exist anywhere else and one we felt at ease with,” Gagnon says.

The school year started off with program participants learning how to melt glycerine, and then add colour, fragrances and spices for soap. They experimented with the colours to achieve a “very special” line of soap, says Gagnon.

“It’s the same product you would buy in a fine soap store,” he says.

Students then stained and decorated boxes. They packaged in the soap, added a bath ball and herbal teas from Avataq, and called the gift box “La Fraîcheur du Nord” – or a touch of freshness from the North.

Orders from Tivi Gallery in Kuujjuaq, Aupalummiut and teachers resulted in more than 200 boxes sold before Christmas at $25 each.

At the same time, under Gagnon, program participants started learning the techniques of stained glass production.

“Like wolves, students approached slowly. Now we have nine students, eight who come regularly, and four who are able to work in stained glass very professionally,” he says.

The entire school population in Aupaluk, Nunavik’s smallest community, is only 50, so this is a good number.

“What’s extraordinary is it that they are students who didn’t come to school. Now they come, in the morning and in the afternoon. They have the choice to go to welding in the afternoon, but, for the moment, they love stained glass,” Gagnon says. “They enjoy making stained glass so much that sometimes school ends and they want to stay.”

Their designs for stained glass work represent scenes from the North, such as wolves and inuksuit. Inspired by Gagnon, who made a stained glass window for the community’s church, Arthur Angma also made a window in the school program, which is called “Prayer.”

“When they shape the glass, they are really professional. Eventually when we’re no longer there, we hope they will continue to make these because they are really works of art,” says Gagnon.

A student who follows the program for two years will have the skills to continue in vocational training, he says.

After having sold out of the soap gift boxes and earning $5,500, the program’s students are accepting gift box orders for Easter and Mother’s Day. They’re also taking orders for stained glass panels, which retail for up to $150.

Students are also involved in other activities. Last month they held a successful sale of winter clothing, which had been donated by a former student of Gagnon who now owns the discount clothing store, Aubaineries Croteau, in Chicoutimi.

The store furnished 500 pounds of clothing in 15 big boxes, which Air Inuit shipped up from La Grande.

The sale was a total success. Residents of Aupaluk, who have few shopping options, scooped up clothing of all sizes until nothing was left. After expenses, the sale earned $2,300. Gagnon says this money will go towards projects with a lasting impact on the school’s students.

The entire work experience program has proven so successful that Gagnon plans to stay in Aupaluk for at least another year.

“I like sharing this experience with the students, I don’t want to abandon them mid-way through the project,” he says.

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