‘It eases their mind’: The soapstone carvers of Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility

Mathewsie Kingwatsiak of Kinngait, Nunavut, works on his latest soapstone carving at the Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility in Iqaluit. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Throughout the year, some of the inmates of the Aaqqigiarvik Correctional Healing Facility in Iqaluit have gotten used to spending long hours outside in noise that is as serene as it is deafening.

One of them, Mathewsie Kingwatsiak, is polishing the last curves of his latest creation.

“This,” he says, “is two-way dancing bears.”

Kingwatsiak, right, works away at a carving. (Matisse Havey/Radio-Canada)

The carver from Kinngait, Nunavut, a community renowned for its visual artists, has been sculpting for fifteen years.

“I try to make them different every time when I carve,” he said.

In prison, he says, carving helps kill time — plus it’s enjoyable.

The program is designed to help inmates reconnect with Inuit culture.

Kingwatsiak now shares his knowledge with less experienced inmates who want to get their start in carving.

“I taught one of the inmates how to make whale … The other guy, I was teaching him how to make bears. They both made it, they can carve now,” he said.

“It’s pretty fun and I always try to make them laugh.”

Since joining the program in 2017, Kingwatsiak estimates that he’s made several hundred carvings. Once completed, they’re sold to the public in the main building of the correctional centre.

The carver earns 80 per cent of the sale price, with 20 per cent going back to the program to pay for tools and materials.

Kingwatsiak, right, works away at a carving. (Matisse Havey/Radio-Canada)

Davidee Parr, also from Kinngait, joined the carving program last month. He’s been a carver for over 15 years. One of his favourite things to carve are muskox.

Parr said it makes his days go by faster. He said he’ll be out there from 9 :30 to 11 in the morning, and again from 1:30  to 4 in the afternoon.

He can complete a carving in a day.

“First we grind it and shape it. From shaping, we file it then we sand it and do the finish work,” he explained.

“I like it, it’s fun.”

Like Kingwatsiak, Parr sends the proceeds of his carvings to his family.

Lisa Churchill, a case manager, says carving can be therapeutic for her clients. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Lisa Churchill, a case manager at the healing facility, said the program gives inmates the opportunity to reconnect with Inuit culture. She added that it also facilitates mentorship, which helps build leadership and patience in participants.

“As a case manager, we look for clients that are interested in taking part of the carving program, who’s a carver or either who is willing to learn to carve so they can gain experience as part of a reintegration plan.”

Churchill says the program sees roughly 30 clients a year.

The program runs in six-week rotations, with four to six people at a time. Churchill says clients can get an extension in the program to help those new to carving. If there are six clients in the program, she’ll end up selling 20 to 30 carvings each week.

Churchill says, watching the carvers, it seems to be “therapeutic for clients.”

“It eases their mind, being away from family and loved ones and friends,” she said.

“They do reconnect with the culture. I see all sorts of beautiful art every week.”

With files from Matisse Harvey

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Correctional centre in Canada’s Northwest Territories introduces therapeutic program, CBC News

Finland: Police in Arctic Finland overstretched, says retiring officer, Yle News

United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media

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