Pictured above: Tony shows off his work in progress, a mother walrus carved from soapstone.
By Hilary Caton, Communications Coordinator
It’s been 10 years since Tony Aglak was able to get back to his Inuit roots and be able to carve something out of soapstone.
He was given the opportunity just two months ago and, naturally, he was anxious.
“I hadn’t carved in 10 years. I was pretty nervous; I screwed up my first carving. I was trying to carve a walrus and it ended up looking like a sea horse,” he says laughing.
“But it’s like riding a bike,” he admits, as he’s sitting down in the Aboriginal Services art space at the table with his tools beside him and his art in his hands.
“Being able to do this is a large part of who I am. I am an Inuit and we carve. I waited a long time for this.”
The healing journey
Up until a few months ago, soapstone carving was a distant memory for Tony. Previously, soapstone carving had been his livelihood. However, it was all put on hold when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s.
Since then, he’s sought treatment intermittently for a number of years, but has steadily receiving treatment at CAMH for the past 10 years.
Soapstone carving was recently offered to Tony as a pilot program through CAMH’s Aboriginal Services in an effort to offer culturally relevant programming to Inuit clients.
Tony attends sessions once a week for two hours.
These carving sessions were able to become a reality for Tony with the help of CAMH’s Gifts of Light Comfort Fund; a donor-funded program that focuses on addressing patients’ immediate needs by connecting them to products, resources, events and programming.
It provided the funding to purchase the soapstone after Tony identified that carving was an important part of his healing journey.
“It’s therapeutic, it’s calming; it balances my thoughts and it helps me focus,” he explains.
“It gives me a chance to stay clean and keep my mind busy.”
Finally accessing this part of his identity has been significant in his recovery, according to his Occupational Therapist, Holly Smith, who’s been working with him since 2013. It has become the one thing he looks forward to every week.
“It is clear that there’s a connection to carving for him. He can carve something and provide the (historical Indigenous) teachings behind what he’s carving. It helps him open up in ways that he’s not always able to do,” she says.
Holly calls these carving sessions “historic for CAMH” because they offer Inuit patients a connection to their identity.
“Anything we can offer that is more of a connection to where they’re from, I think that’s really an important part of somebody’s treatment and healing process,” Holly says.
A piece of home
Tony grew up in Hall Beach, Nunavut, in a community where soapstone carving was not only a part of his upbringing, it was part of his cultural identity.
“My father used to be a master carver and I learned by watching him when I was growing up. I started when I was small, something like four or five years old,” Tony says.
Everything Tony learned about soapstone carving came from his father.
He passed away 16 years ago.
“This is a part of him that’s been passed on to me. I think about him every time I carve,” Tony says.
Tony plans to create more carvings and turn them into necklaces with hopes of selling them one day. For him, it’s a step forward to becoming financially independent and returning to a life he once knew and loved.
“It feels great to be carving again,” he says.
“I missed this.”
The Aboriginal Service at CAMH is an outpatient substance use and mental health program for self-identifying First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. It blends therapeutic and psycho-educational groups with cultural programming and ceremonies as part of a holistic approach to care. CAMH also has an onsite Sweat Lodge that can be utilized as part of a client’s treatment plan.