On a cold sunny day, with the temperature hovering near -25 C, Leon Weyallon of Behchoko was the first to slip into open water on Jackfish Lake, wearing a bright yellow insulated survival suit.

Leon Weyallon

Leon Weyallon of Behchoko, N.W.T. says swimming with the survival suit is like being an otter. (CBC)

“You have to trust the suit there,” he says. “It's guaranteed to float you. Once you get in there it's real nice, and it's just like an otter: you can turn around, float on your back…”

Weyallon is one of 11 people from the Tlicho region who are taking part in the Tlicho Wilderness Safety training program in Yellowknife this week.

Today’s exercise: learn how to rescue someone who’s fallen through the ice.

People in this group know survival: many have lived on the land their whole lives

The program gives them high standard safety training and certification, so they can go on to be outdoor leaders for the Tlicho government or professional wilderness guides.

Elders suit up

A Dene elders suit up for the test. (CBC)

Sandy Flunky is the only woman in the group, and she admits she’s anxious.

“They said it’s not deep, so that’s good,” she says.

Coordinator Paul Cressman says the program is the first of its kind in Canada.

“With their cultural background and their vast knowledge of the land and stories and history and language,” he says, “once they have the safety skills, the programs that they’re going to be able to run on their land… are going to be second to none.”

Many also want to teach younger people in their communities.

“This way they can use the skills that we were taught,” Weyallon says, “and the skills that we have living out on the land and surviving out in the bush. It’s all gonna come in handy once you’re out there. It’s all part of survival.”

“How to be safe on a canoe trip, how to be safe on a skidoo, how to be safe on the land,” Flunky says. “The main thing is our community. Our people.”

The group is halfway through the three month course.