Joe Migwans, cultural counsellor for Jackson Lake Wellness, who leads the snowshoe making class, stands in front of two moose hides, which will be cut into strips to make the lacing. (Julien Gignac/Yukon News)

Kwanlin Dün First Nation offers skills training steeped in tradition

The 12-week program blends tradition and professional expertise, connecting citizens to employment

Two tanned moose hides hang from a clothesline, dripping wet from cleaning. Soon they will be cut thin, becoming the thongs of about 10 sets of snowshoes.

Steps away, inside the Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s (KDFN) Kenädän Kù House of Learning people work away at the various stages of snowshoe making on Nov. 19 — drilling or intricately weaving the finely cut hide between frames.

It’s meticulous work, but it pays off — literally, and in more ways than one.

The participants are part of KDFN’s Skills for Life, Land and Work, a program, now in its second year, that connects citizens to employment, either within the community or outside it.

Ages vary between 20-years-old to 50. Most are KDFN citizens or family of them. All are unemployed.

Wilderness first aid, trapper certification, firearm safety and career counseling, among other things, are offered during a 12-week period. There’s also a volunteer work placement.

“The goal of the program is to strengthen workplace essential skills, life skills and personal wellness,” says Justine Copestake, an adult educator. “The overall program seeks to bring workplace essential skills with on the land type traditional programming and activities and bring the two types of learning together.”

Next week, for instance, participants will visit a trap line operated by a KDFN elder and spend the night. And, yes, the snowshoes will be used during the occasion.

“I think it’s important to give people different options in learning,” Copestake says. “Very holistic. We look at the whole person and try and help them with whatever challenges they might be dealing with.”

To say that participants are simply making snowshoes would be an understatement. They are practicing their culture.

“I’m doing teachings about the stories around it,” says Joe Migwans, cultural counsellor for Jackson Lake Wellness, who leads the class. “The importance of it.”

He pauses, looking up from the netting of a snowshoe he is working on.

“Why do we have snowshoes,” he asks participants.

“Because you can’t walk in the deep snow with your boots,” Anna Sam says.

“To get food, remember?” Migwans says, laughing. “Not just for walking around. Not just for exercise. That was never our style.

“In our traditional society, we hunted. And that’s what these (snowshoes) are all about. Snowshoe making is all about providing for your family.”

Migwans says the program is important, in this respect, because cultural teachings like these get shared, passed down, kept intact.

“It’s not about keeping information to yourself,” he says. “It’s about helping other people to do this, as well.”

Shannon Skookum, another participant, sees great worth in the skill-sets learned during the program. Not only are some part of her culture, she said, but they dovetail with securing employment — a point of pride for her.

“Everything that we’ve done, we can put on a resume. I think it’s really gonna help us find a job after,” Skookum says.

Tony Guy is proof the program is making good on its mandate. He was a participant in last year’s program. Now he’s a KDFN yard manager.

“If you were like me and felt like you were standing still … (the program) definitely got me up and learning again and taking that step to get going,” he says.

Guy said it doesn’t matter whether what’s learned is directly applicable to a chosen line of work — it’s about keeping traditions alive and well.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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