A man who teaches incarcerated youth at a facility in the Northwest Territories has spent the last week in Nova Scotia learning how to make snowshoes in the traditional way.

Russell Ives, who is originally from Truro, N.S., plans to teach the skill at the North Slave Young Offenders Facility in Yellowknife.

He has previously brought other traditional craft skills into the classroom, such as beading and making clothing from moose hide.

"Since they aren't allowed out on the land, I try to bring the land to them," he said of the youth he helps. 

"They've had rough upbringings and they don't have a lot of knowledge about where they came from.... It goes over in a great way. They find it empowering and they stick with it."

Ives was searching for a place to learn on-the-land skills when he stumbled upon a video of Barry Hiltz, site manager and veteran woodworker at the Ross Farm Museum in New Ross, N.S.

Losing cultural practices

At first it seemed a little ironic to both Ives and Hiltz that a man from the Northwest Territories, where one might think these skills are prevalent, would travel to Nova Scotia to learn how to make snowshoes.

But Ives says in the North "those cultural traditions are dying out," in part because elders are getting too old to pass them along. 

​"It was hard for me to find anyone that still wanted to teach this to someone other than a family member," he said.

Russell Ives works on snowshoes

Russell Ives hopes to teach his own students to make their own pair. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Hiltz says he was surprised when Ives first contacted him, but he's thrilled to help.

"It makes me feel great that I can pass on these [skills] to someone that's interested in passing them on to someone else," he said.

​Ives says Hiltz has taught him a lot in a short period of time and he wants to in turn help his students make their own snowshoes. 

"It's all about me taking back this knowledge, which comes from my land, back to my adopted homeland and sharing that with them so then those aboriginal kids or any kids in the school system can take advantage of it," said Ives.

Hands-on workshop

Hiltz started making snowshoes in 1985. Early on, he read books and asked people who still made them how to do it.

Now he uses mostly ash wood for the frame and nylon for the woven material, which in the past was made of rawhide.

The workshop with Ives has been hands-on, with lessons on everything from selecting the right tree to working the wood into a frame and weaving the nylon mesh.

Using traditional tools, Hiltz has instructed Ives to shave the wood down to a 6.5 centimetre square.​

​They felled a tamarack tree from the Ross Farm Museum because that wood, also known as hackmatack, larch or juniper, is available around Yellowknife. 

Barry Hiltz

Barry Hiltz started making snowshoes about 30 years ago. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)