'I feel really proud': Welding mentorship keeps Cambridge Bay teens out of trouble

Six teens are part of an ongoing mentorship program in Cambridge Bay, a community of about 1,800 on the Arctic Ocean. They're learning welding skills but are also spending time with mentors.

'Having this makes a big difference, gives us stuff to do,' says Andrew Kitigon

Andrew Kitigon in the workshop in Cambridge Bay. He hopes to build himself a bench press so he can start lifting weights. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Keenan Allukpik adjusts the mix of burning gas in his welding torch as a bright orange flame shoots out the end. He turns the nozzle until it turns light blue, hot enough to cut through steel.

Michael Haniliak and Andrew Kitigon stand behind him, wearing heavy gloves and welding masks as Allukpik cuts an extra piece of metal off the wolf they're building in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

Kerry and Amanda Illerbrun oversee it all, shouting encouragement and advice over the noise of the tools. Once it's cut they celebrate. It's a small job, but a job done right.   

The teens are three of six youth who take part in an ongoing mentorship program in Cambridge Bay, a community of about 1,800 on the Arctic Ocean. The Illerbruns come to town a few weeks a year to teach them welding skills.

At one point, the group was singled out for troublesome behaviour. Some thought that without guidance, small incidents could graduate to more serious offences. But now the Illerbruns are their mentors, in a community where mentors are in short supply. 

Keenan Allukpik cuts off a piece of excess metal on a wolf he's constructing as part of a mentorship program in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

"He's teaching us how to weld, but a lot of other stuff too, like how to be good leaders," said Kitigon.

Their work involves building a sculpture of wolves and a muskox that's emerging in the town's new heritage park. The teens also build small metal sculptures of fish and birds that sell for about $25 each.

Some pieces have been sold to the hamlet, where they're displayed in the council chambers.

Keenan Allukpik has been singled out as a leader among the teens taking the welding courses. He hopes to become a welder in the future. (Alex Brockman/CBC )

Kitigon wants to make a bench press, so he can start lifting weights. Haniliak plans to build up a supply of birds to sell to the tourists who'll come through on Arctic cruise ships later this summer.

Allukpik says he's happy to keep welding the wolf. He sees himself continuing on as an apprentice welder and doing the trade for a living.

'Boys like to be challenged' 

Cambridge Bay — like many communities in the North — doesn't have many opportunities for teens outside of school. The town's hockey arena is the most recent casualty. It's closed, waiting for repairs.

"It's not that good for the youth, there aren't that many things to do," said Kitigon. "Having this makes a big difference, gives us stuff to do."

This piece in Cambridge Bay's heritage park is being built by the teens in the welding program under the guidance of Kerry and Amanda Illerbrun. They're currently building another wolf to add to it. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

But more than "stuff to do," the welding gives the teens time with positive adults. Since the workshops began, none of the six have gotten into any trouble at all. 

The Illerbruns run Kastawayz Upcycled Art, in Port Alberni, B.C. They were originally contacted in 2016 by the hamlet to teach the teens the art of welding, something neither of them had done before. They're creating a life-sized muskox and wolf sculpture. 

They've returned each year, working with the same group, deepening their relationship. 

"We like the cultural aspect of what this could represent, what it could mean to the boys," Amanda Illerbrun said. "We like to give them an identity, put them in touch with who they are so they can feel powerful and move forward with confidence.

"I can only do what I know, and that's being a bit of a mother," she said. "Boys like to be challenged, they liked to be pushed a little bit. I'm just a parent myself, so I have to bring that, I'm not a teacher, I'm not a counsellor. I'm not any of those things. We have to work with what we know as parents."

Amanda and Kerry Illerbrun are often joined in the shop by Attima and Elizabeth Hadlari, a local couple who help the teens connect with their Inuit culture.

Attima offers advice on how the sculptures should look and teaches on-the-land skills when the teens aren't in the shop. Elizabeth is a longtime teacher who encourages and mentors them.

Kerry Illerbrun, left, watches as Keenan Allukpik works with a welding torch. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

For Allukpik, Kitigon and Haniliak, the next step is to continue doing their art when the Illerbruns are not in town. 

There are plans to turn an old muskox slaughterhouse into an artistic space for them and other interested artists over the next year. Ideally, the teens will get the shop running as a place where tourists can buy their work right as they come off the ships.