'It's hard work': Sawmill training program brings skills to K'atl'odeeche First Nation

A sawmill that has been sitting at K’atl’odeeche First Nation for more than four years is finally getting some use, as residents train to produce lumber for the community.

12 people initially signed up for program that’s putting community’s dormant sawmill to use

A sawmill training program on the K'atl'odeeche First Nation is building skills for residents who wish to build their own cabins and teach their own programs. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

A sawmill that has been sitting at K'atl'odeeche First Nation for more than four years is finally getting some use.

Three community members are being trained to use the machine so they can start producing lumber in the community.

"It's hard work," said trainer Murphy Pottage. "But it's a skill that they can carry with them the rest of their lives."

The N.W.T.'s Department of Education, Culture and Employment, the Aboriginal Skills and Employment Training Strategy, Aurora College, and the K'atl'odeeche First Nation worked together to bring Pottage into the community, who is training residents for free.

The First Nation bought the sawmill years ago, but this is the first time people will be trained to use the equipment.

The lumber they are cutting now will be used for projects in the community, including building a fence around the graveyard, said Pottage. He will also build a mini model cabin with the trainees. Hopefully, he adds, it can be used as a template for residents who wish to make their own cabins. 

The dormant sawmill hasn't been used in years. Now, residents are being trained how to use it, for free. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Pottage said he built a cabin for about $200. It took hundreds of hours of training and practice, he said, but it's achievable. 

The goal of the program is "to say to people in remote communities: 'there's your forest, here's your little saw mill, here's a pair of hinges, here's a piece of glass, a handful of screws, build a cabin,'" said Pottage.

About 12 people originally signed up for the program. Three weeks in, there are three people left.

Earl Smallgeese — a lifelong resident in the community — is one of the people left. Smallgeese hopes to use the skills he learns in conjunction with his trade: carpentry. 

Earl Smallgeese's goal after being trained on the K'atl'odeeche sawmill is to build his own cabin. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

"My goal is to build my own cabin, and maybe help somebody out with a cabin," said Smallgeese.

Once the training is over, the trainees will have access to the sawmill through the First Nation.

However, even with access to the sawmill, Smallgeese said he has bigger plans: he's thinking about starting his own sawmill once the program ends. He also wants to teach others in the community how to use the machine once the current program is over. 

Ricky Sonfrere, a mechanic in K'atl'odeeche, said he hopes training residents on the sawmill will bring some money back into the community. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Ricky Sonfrere, a mechanic, is one of the other trainees who wants to use the sawmill to his advantage. 

"Establish some work and maybe … build my shop with it," he said.  

He said getting lumber in the community can be expensive, and the sawmill will save the community a lot of money.

By using nearby trees and cutting their own lumber, the men would only have to pay for the cost of transporting the trees from the bush to the saw.