PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. - It’s 1 p.m. on a frigid February day at Saskatchewan Penitentiary’s minimum security unit and a crew is preparing to load a newly built modular unit that is located between a construction training shop and a CORCAN site office.
This unit is the Piapot First Nations’ brand-new early learning centre for child development and school readiness. The 2,176-square-foot structure will soon host 20 to 25 children per day in a bright, open-concept environment. Equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, large play area and office space, and built to national building code standards, the facility has everything the kids, staff and administrators need.
Initiated through partnerships with other government departments and the Aboriginal Head Start on Reserve program that addresses early learning and healthy development for First Nations children living on-reserve, these building projects provide employability skills training to federally incarcerated offenders.
Private and public sector partnerships are a critical part of CORCAN’s success as a key rehabilitation program of the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC). CORCAN works with community educational facilities, construction industry partners and other stakeholders to ensure that the training offered is certified and recognized in the industry. This improves an offender's chances of finding employment on release.
The Piapot modular build is the culmination of seven months of work by CORCAN instructors and a group of 10 to 12 inmates. It is now ready to take a 358 kilometre trip to its final destination for a grand opening ceremony.
The first step of this five-hour journey is to secure the structure for transportation on to the moving truck. Once loaded and securely hooked up, the truck begins the commute down the highway towards the Piapot First Nations’ Reserve. Shortly after, an offender starts aligning the support blocks in preparation for the next construction project, which will be the third of its kind to be built here.
Offenders who put the time and effort into completing the project and learning new skills increase their chances for a successful transition into the community. Many offenders are able to find work following their release as a result of their training and the increasing demand for trade jobs in the labour market.
Former inmates often face challenges when looking for work, so any extra abilities they can bring to the table are beneficial for them in the long term. For inmates like Murray, who worked on the project from start-to-finish, making himself valuable to potential employers is an important part of his correctional plan.
“I never really had a job before, but since learning this trade, it’s really helped me out a lot,” he explained in an interview in the Saskatchewan Penitentiary CORCAN office. “It’s learning new stuff so I can get a job on the street and not have to worry about getting a job … (I can) work on construction, get in with a union and follow through.”
Murray has worked with CORCAN since about 2013, and in that time he’s learned a lot.
“I worked on pretty much everything that has to do with the building, from the floor to the ceiling to the roof, putting on the tin and stuff like that,” he said. “I’ve learned how to use all the hand tools, the power tools … how to put up walls, measurements, how to read a tape measure and different gauges of nails and screws and stuff like that.”
For offenders like Dwayne, who was already an experienced carpenter prior to arriving at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, projects like the modular build provide an opportunity to practice his skills.
“I’m pretty familiar with all the techniques that we used from beginning to completion on both units,” said Dwayne, who intends to return to carpentry when he gets out. “If nothing else, it really just keeps my skills honed, keeps me in game shape.”
It also gives offenders something positive to focus on and a tangible goal to reach while serving their sentence.
“This thing starts as a pile of lumber - you’ll see in the yard over there the next one we’re starting - to what you see today: the completed project,” Dwayne said. “So it gives you something to quest for and try and thrive on the quality being really high and completing it in a timely manner.”
High quality craftsmanship is something that underpins all of CORCAN’s work. The program produces a wide range of durable products and structures in worksites that replicate private sector work environments, assisting them to build technical as well as transferable employment skills. Under supervision, offenders can also complete apprenticeship hours towards their professional qualifications in various trades.
“I was quite surprised at how well oiled we are here with a roster of professional-grade tools - everything that I would need to do any aspect of the project, start to finish,” said Dwayne, who started with CORCAN less than a year ago. “I thought that that would be a problem, but it’s not. Everything is here, the instructors are well-versed and great to work with, also.”
Trevor Simpson has been a CORCAN instructor for three years. During that time, he’s gotten a close look at the benefits that stem from projects like this early learning centre for all parties involved.
“It helps (offenders) learn a trade … it gives them something to do when they get out, so they don’t have to go back to whatever they did to get in here,” Simpson says. “They go out into the workforce with a little more knowledge, hopefully, and they can get a job immediately as soon as they get out.”
“It makes it a lot easier for them to find employment.”
Simpson says a few of the inmates he’s worked with started their own construction companies after they got out and are doing really well.
In addition, since many of the offenders have construction experience on the outside prior to arriving at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, they also bring their own unique skills to the CORCAN jobsite. Sometimes, they even end up teaching new skills to the instructors.
Steve Young, CORCAN’s acting construction supervisor at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, wants to inform people that penitentiaries are capable of doing large-scale, high-quality work.
“I think there’s a number of benefits to working with CORCAN,” Young said. “(Structurally), these buildings are built to the national building code, so things have to be done right. I think for (offenders), it gives them an opportunity - if they haven’t been in a trade - to maybe learn a trade, if that’s something they want to do when they move on from here.”
“We’re fortunate enough to go through all the steps here,” he added. “We start with the floor, the walls, the roof, all the exterior is done and then we start working inside and doing the finishing, so it encompasses all the work from start to finish.”
CORCAN provides a range of construction services to CSC and other clients. Products and services are sold internally and externally, primarily to other federal government departments and agencies. For federal government departments, partnering with CORCAN supports governmental and departmental priorities as it contributes to the reintegration of offenders and public safety.
The CORCAN site at Saskatchewan Penitentiary has worked on a wide range of projects. “We do a number of things, from Habitat for Humanity housing, to RCMP housing,” Young explained. “We do kiosks for parks, we do anything from fishing shacks to sheds. And with (Saskatchewan Penitentiary) being as old as it is, we do a lot of institutional work here as well.”
“The institutional work, a lot of it’s commercial, which is a good thing, which helps inmates get some diversity (of experience) … a lot of fixing up, patching, repairs, redoing buildings, taking down buildings, removing asbestos, all types of things.”
“Penitentiaries are capable of doing these things. It helps us and it helps (the clients).” Through technical and transferable skills gained by working on these projects, offenders are ready to enter the labour market on release and become an asset to a community employer.