Inuit construction company “Kong-struction” is ready to start beating its chest

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kong-structionThe annual Kuujjuaq Mining Workshop this year will be a coming-out of sorts for a fledgling construction company based in Kangirsuk, a tiny Inuit community (population 300) on the Bay of Ungava.

Kong-struction is less than two years old, but the largely Inuk-operated firm has made huge strides toward becoming a player in the booming construction industry in northern Quebec. When company representatives appear at the Kuujjuaq conference April 28-30, they’ll tell a seemingly unlikely story of building a thriving business out of scrapped vehicles, determination, a philosophy of mutual support and a lot of elbow grease.

It’s the brainchild of Robert Jr. Drapeau, a 30-year construction industry veteran who is familiar to many Cree who worked with him and the company, Construction Val-d’Or, founded by his late father, Robert Sr.

“It started coming together when I was working in Kangirsuk in the summer of 2012,” Drapeau recounts. “I went up there and started teaching construction to local people. It worked well. People who had never worked on heavy machinery were showing up on time every morning. They really wanted to accomplish something.”

Drapeau noticed a collection of broken-down equipment rusting away in the local dumpsite. He negotiated with the community to purchase four pieces of discarded equipment and put people to work putting the pieces back together. The first truck had to be dug out of deep snow bank.

“It was all torn to shreds,” Drapeau laughs. “But I saw a great opportunity to take them apart and teach mechanics; how to rebuild and properly maintain them.”

They brought an abandoned engine back to life, ordered replacement brakes and a windshield, then painted and modified the hood of a school bus to fit the first company truck. It took months of hard work and hundreds of hours of labour to make it professionally operational.

Drapeau credits Alexis Bado, a program officer with the Sustainable Employment Department of the Kativik Regional Government, with providing training subsidies to sustain the project until it could get on its feet.

Two years later, Kong-struction employs 12 Inuk, from teenagers to one worker who is in his 70s. The company operates a variety of heavy machinery, from dump trucks to loaders to large excavators. This winter, Drapeau and another Kong-struction employee came south to a Ritchie Bros. auction in Valleyfield, where they bought a compacter and three more dump trucks. They’re waiting for the ice to melt so the new equipment can be barged north to Kangirsuk – at a cost of $86,000.

Meanwhile, those who work at the company have become the toast of the town as they’ve begun to win contracts for a variety of projects, including road works, excavation, crushing, and transportation, drilling and blasting. Now they have their sights on bigger goals, including jobs at the nearby Raglan Mine.

For Drapeau, creating a local company that employs and trains local people is an important goal. “I’ve seen many southern companies bring a lot of people in and not hire any local Inuit people. Or if they did, only to do the most menial jobs like picking up scrap materials. I didn’t appreciate that. So that’s why we’re trying to turn this in another direction.”

But what really makes the company special is a philosophy of collective support based on family values. Davidee Nassak is a prime example. The 18-year-old is, since January, enrolled in a business program at Montreal’s John Abbott College. But he started working with Kong-struction more than two years ago, learning how to operate all kinds of heavy machinery.

The family atmosphere is more than a simple comfort zone for the tight-knit Inuk who work at the company. As Nassak explains, each workday starts with a security meeting.

“It’s part of our daily routine. We talk about the mistakes we made the day before, that we would normally be too shy to tell. For example, if I overloaded the truck with gravel. Or mistook hydraulic oil for engine oil. We communicate. At first we all laugh together – not at each other – because we feel like family. We’re like brothers and sisters in the shop,” says Nassak.

“Then we’ll offer advice on how to avoid the mistake. We’re not afraid to ask any question. There’s no such thing as a wrong question.”

Nassak is a voluble teenager, cracking jokes and constantly checking his Facebook on his smartphone. But he’s deadly serious about developing Kong-struction as an important economic force for his hometown. That’s why he’s in Montreal, studying hard.

“I want to learn about the business side, to be able to do the paperwork,” he explains. “It’s a lot of work. But Bob is not going to be here forever and we will need to do this for ourselves. So I thought if I got into business he wouldn’t be the only pulling all the weight.”

Drapeau changed Nassak’s opinion of white southerners the first time he met him for a job interview as a shy 16-year-old. Waiting in a chair for his interview, Nassak saw Drapeau walking down the hall concentrating on reading a file. “I thought, ‘Oh, here comes another super serious white guy!’”

But he was wrong. “Sometimes Bob is like my second mother,” says Nassak. “He talked to me after work when I started. I was scared at first but it became easier and I gained confidence. Now I can do it alone. He tested me and showed confidence in me.”

Drapeau is a grizzled veteran of job sites across the north, but he’s also a man who wears his heart on his sleeve. Meeting for lunch with him and Nassak in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue recently, he was beaming with pride at the progress of his young protégé.

Drapeau says the Kuujjuaq conference will be an important event in the lives of men and women at Kong-struction. “The dream of the Inuit is to go out there and say, ‘We can do this.’ And by doing this, we create more opportunities,” he says.

“Davidee used to never leave his bedroom,” he confides. “He was a shy person, closed up. Now he’s in school, never late, and passing with good grades. He recently went to New York. He’s out there. And he’s going back to his remote community explaining what he is seeing.”

The personal growth of the company’s workers is a vital element of making the new company work, Drapeau emphasizes. “We use every opportunities to teach one another. That’s why we are a family. We learn to respect the rules, and we come into work on time. That’s our philosophy: learn one, do one, teach one.”

It’s a way of business he learned working with his father at Construction Val-d’Or, a large company with at times up to 250 employees. “We had an idea of working up north, my dad worked all his life in Cree territory,” Drapeau explains. “So I started working and teaching Cree people, sharing my knowledge. We created many opportunities for Cree to learn and operate with us. Now some have their own businesses.”

And it’s working in Kangirsuk, he insists with a fervour that suggests bigger things are just over the horizon. As Drapeau quips, “We ‘Kong’ do it!”

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