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Merkosak Construction has adapted to a changing business environment

Simon Merkosak is a businessman who realizes the value of partnerships. When he got Merkosak Construction off the ground in 1988, purchasing heavy equipment was out of reach, so he struck a deal with the local Co-op to rent their heavy equipment.

Simon Merkosak, owner of Merkosak Construction in Pond Inlet, stands outside the Tununiq Sauniq Co-op that his company built.
Photo courtesy of Simon Merkosak

More recently, when the Government of Nunavut stopped tendering labour-only construction contracts, which had been Merkosak's bread and butter, he started forming partnerships with southern construction firms to remain competitive and able to handle the added supplying, shipping and erecting components of the government contracts.

"For me I don't have the financial resources or access to the financial resources to go after those contracts," Merkosak explained. "They benefit and we benefit. We help each other out. As a result of the land claims agreement, you have a requirement for Inuit companies to register with NTI (Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated) 51-49 percentage ownership (Inuit versus southern). We were kind of forced into this. We had no choice but to go that route."

Facing this new reality, Merkosak has formed almost a dozen joint venture companies, although only four of them are currently active. Some of those companies target contracts at the Mary River iron mine. Another project that Merkosak has in his sights is the small craft marine harbour that will be constructed in Pond Inlet, starting this summer.

White-collar and blue-collar experience

Merkosak acquired his administrative skills from serving as Pond Inlet's senior administrative officer (SAO) for 10 years prior to starting his business. That position with the hamlet also gave him insight into how to launch and operate ventures.

His trades skills were ingrained earlier, while attending vocational school in Churchill, Man., known as Fort Churchill when he was there in 1969. He later attended Algonquin College.

He returned to his hometown of Pond Inlet in 1975. There were few employment opportunities at the time, Merkosak recalled.
"Just menial jobs, labour jobs, that was about it," he said.

The SAO position held much greater appeal and Merkosak grew into it, becoming fully qualified through a program offered jointly by the Government of the Northwest Territories and McMaster University. After a decade in that role, he saw another avenue to make life better for himself and his community by establishing Merkosak Construction.

"The contractors who were coming up to our community, they hired manual labour only. When they leave, they left with the money. There was practically no benefit to the community," he recalled. "I started going after building renovations. I've (built) five-plexes. I had the labour contract for (construction of) our Co-op store that's being used right now, and it's a fairly good size. I've built roads in town and housing pads," he said.

The road to the community's new dump site, approximately three kilometres long, was one of his major accomplishments because of the stringent timeline, he said.

"I did it in only one summer. I was working 24/7 and had two crews working day shift and night shift and I got it done on time, before freeze-up," he said.

Since Merkosak went into private business in 1988, he said he has won the sealift contract – unloading the annual cargo ships and delivering the freight around town – every year except for three, when the Co-op was the successful bidder.

He has made a point of hiring 100 per cent Inuit labour for his construction contracts, with the exception of skilled tradespeople whom he had to bring from the south. However, his hired journeypersons have provided training for numerous Inuit apprentices over the years as carpenters, electricians and plumbers. The difficult part has been retaining the services of the coveted apprentices, he admitted.
"It's a vicious cycle. Once I get them qualified, they get a better jobs, permanent jobs with (the) housing (corporation) or the government or whatever," he said. "It's a revolving door."

These are some of the hurdles that Merkosak has been clearing for 30 years. He can see the finish line now, but it's still a ways away.

"In my (construction) business it's either feast or famine. Sometimes you get a big contract once every blue moon and then there's a feast. In between there's famine, no money, and that's how it goes," he said. "I'm hoping no more than 10 (more) years. I want to retire too."