On a late-July evening, just after dinner time, Joe Kitekudlak is resting from another long day of work. A new duplex is going up in Ulukhaktok, the lone NWT community on Victoria Island, and Kitekudlak spent the day mudding and taping and plastering drywall. Kitekudlak, 76, retired after running his own company—Kitekudlak Construction Ltd.—for more than 25 years. But retirement didn’t stick. “I tried,” he says, before laughing. “I get restless, so I went back to work.”
‘Joe of all Trades,’ as his wife Helen lovingly calls him, has spent much of his working life constructing, renovating and maintaining homes and buildings in the community of 400. This includes expansions to the hamlet office and construction of the Co-op’s hotel. Kitekudlak learned each discipline from watching others and then he passed those skills on to younger people in Ulukhaktok. Later, when their kids moved out, he and Helen opened a bed & breakfast. Kitekudlak is proud of his time as an entrepreneur, creating local employment and having a hand in building so much of his community. But while he’s been a pillar of Ulukhaktok over the years, he’s not the kind of person to talk about his accomplishments. Today, when he’s not mudding and taping, he’ll get calls from people around town who need help with a small plumbing job or furnace check. “I always say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it,’” Kitekudlak says. He rarely asks for anything in return, although grateful Ulukhaktok residents will sometimes give him some money for fuel as a thank you.
What were you working on today?
It’s a new building and they’re putting drywall inside. It was ready for mud and taping, except they had nobody coming in. I told them I’ll try tomorrow. So I started taping and mudding and plastering. It was good to start working again.
When did you first begin in construction?
When I was young, I started. When I moved from camp. We used to have a camp, all year round, about 80 miles from Ulukhaktok. We trapped and were hunting and living on the land. When I moved here [in 1967], I started working. That was something to get money.
How did you learn?
I trained myself in my job and watched people. I used to be a helper before I started construction. I learned from my cousin—he was a journeyman electrician. I started helping and he taught me. Anything, I learned right away. I never went to school. I just learned on my job.
You never went to school at all?
In 1956, I went to Kugluktuk—Coppermine, it used to be—summer school, for five months. That’s it. I went home and I never went back to school. I started writing and reading and kept going and never gave up.
You ran a construction company in Ulukhaktok for more than 25 years.
Yeah, I did mostly renovations when I started. Before I retired, we built the new eight-room hotel for our Holman Eskimo Co-op. I got the contract from [Arctic Cooperatives Limited]. I finished the whole outside, covered everything, insulated and from there, Arctic Co-op workers came in to finish it up. It was good that the last building I ever built is a big one.
Did you hire local workers as much as possible?
When I started construction, teenagers started looking for jobs. I taught them how to do everything. They wanted to work for me when I was doing something. Everybody liked it when I was doing the construction business.
You built the house you live in too?
Yeah, I built it. I had two helpers and a small little grant of $7,000. Those two boys really worked hard. I paid them. I really needed money too at that same time. I got a subcontract with one guy. He was building four new units. I’d go to work at 8 o’clock in the morning, go home for 5 o’clock and eat. After I’d eat, I’d get one hour of rest, then I’d go back to this house and finish it up.
I’m curious about running a construction business in the North. What wasthe toughest part?
My paperwork. I used to have somebody look after it—accountants from Yellowknife. I would bring all my papers to Yellowknife. Sometimes they would ask me what did I do with this stuff and where did the money go? And sometimes I can’t even answer. [Laughs]
One time, I brought all my papers to the accountant. He said, “I’ve got everything here. All the papers are good.”
“You don’t have everything.”
“Huh, like what?”
“You need Tylenol.”
He asked me, “What for?”
“If you look at my papers, you’re going to gets headaches.” [Laughs]
Are you planning to work through the summer?
I’m going to have a break. We’ll make a trip to Prince Albert Sound, right to the end, about 100 miles by boat. I think it’s still got some more ice, so we’re waiting for the ice to come out from there.
We’ll get caribou from there and stay out on the land. Lots of people do that. In springtime, people start hauling gas [by snowmachine over the ice] for the summer down there, so you can use them in the summertime. You stay in a camp and things like that. No TV.
No drywalling either.
(This interview was edited and condensed.)