One of the main goals of CORCAN, a special operating agency within the Correctional Service of Canada, is to help offenders develop marketable skills that can help them find employment and successfully re-integrate into society.
Through on-the-job training in various areas like construction and manufacturing, CORCAN also helps offenders earn apprenticeship hours toward a trade certification. In different institutions across Canada, offenders are working to become certified carpenters, plumbers, welders, and more.
For long-term offenders like Paul, a newly-licensed electrical journeyman at Dorchester Penitentiary - Minimum Security Unit, the opportunity to build up a sense of accomplishment and self-worth is just as crucial as gaining skills for the job market.
“I think it’s very important,” he explained. “I really do, because after a certain time, you can kind of get acclimatized, if you will, to the environment here … to have something that’s important to you to focus on and work towards, that has a very real result that I think is beneficial.”
Over the past four years or so, Paul has accomplished a lot.
While he signed up to be an apprentice in 2013, his road to electrical work actually started back in January of 2010. Over the prior year and a half, he’d been working on a CORCAN re-roofing project inside the institution and, as a result, had the opportunity to work with construction people from the community.
Paul took a particular interest in electrical work and, he started chipping away at the hours and testing required to become fully licenced.
There are four learning “blocks” apprentices must complete, each with an hours worked requirement and an exam at the end. After passing a final Red Seal exam, apprentices are then considered fully licenced electricians.
Paul has accumulated thousands of hours working exclusively inside the institution, doing everything from changing electrical outlets to, now, preparing to change the main distribution transformer in Dorchester’s electrical shop.
“I’m lucky that, because electrical is so widespread in here, I’m able to get exposed to so much of it,” he said. “I work on heating and ventilation, control systems, all sorts of things!”
After passing his Block 3 – considered the most difficult by those in the profession – with a score of 90 per cent, Paul went on to pass his Block 4 exams with flying colours. An impressive feat given his unique situation and the fact he hadn’t attended formal classes. Paul’s hard work and determination paid off when he successfully completed his Red Seal exams in March 2018 and received his Journeyman card shortly thereafter.
While Paul was quick to point out how much help he’s received from those around him – CORCAN contractors, his parole officer and institutional staff – he also noted that, ultimately, it’s up to offenders to do the work necessary to succeed.
“I’m not saying it’s perfect for everybody by any means, I mean it takes a lot of self-determination,” he said.
“I obviously have a number of electricians here that I can reference and ask for help and resources available, but ultimately the drive behind it is down to me,” he continued. “I’m the one that decides how much effort I put into it, what I’m willing to learn.”
He hopes that apprenticeship programs will continue to expand and that offenders will take advantage of those opportunities when they do pop up.
“When something new is coming along, it takes a number of people that are willing to put the effort in and take that extra step to support it and kind of let people see that there is a benefit to it, and that’s one of the reasons I’m actually doing this interview,” Paul said. “I’m hoping that maybe this is something that’ll become a little more widespread, because I think it would be something that would be really beneficial not just down here but across Canada.”
Paul believes apprenticeship programs are particularly beneficial to long-term offenders. He entered an institution at around 20 years old, and he hopes to be out by before age 50. At that point, an electrical certification could be a valuable asset.
“Yes we do the programming, yes there is employment in here, but real world, especially for long-term offenders, a lot of them come in younger, and when you get out, what do you have available to you?” he asked. “Yes you can re-train when you get out, but that’s time and expense and perhaps not everyone has access to the money and the time to do that.”
Paul acknowledges there are no guarantees that, even with certification, finding a job will be easy.
But at the very least, he’ll have the pride of having stuck with, and completed, a difficult challenge while he was serving his time.
“It really helps to add to the feeling of self worth that you have, that you have something to offer,” he said. “That’s, for me, what’s important.”