A 24-year-old pilot from Pangnirtung, Nunavut is one of Canadian North's latest hires, and the company says he's a "big win."
Joseph Akulukjuk graduated two years ago from flying school at the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) in Ontario.
"I was really excited when I got the offer letter from Canadian North. I was really proud, first person I told was my mom," he said.
His mother, Rosemary Leah Nakashuk, helped support him financially through his training.
"I lost words when he showed me the letter from Canadian North, I had mixed emotions … just started crying," she said.
Becoming a pilot was an expensive endeavour. Sometimes a day of training would cost the family $1,300. Nakashuk put everything she had toward her son.
Joseph Akulukjuk (centre) completed flying school with support from his family, including his mom, Rosemary Nakashuk (left) and his step-dad, Josephie Nakashuk (right). (Submitted by Joseph Akulukjuk)
"I would even put my whole paycheck in there, I didn't want him to just quit, 'cause I knew he can finish the program," she said.
"I remember, he said 'Don't you guys have to eat?' And I replied to him 'We won't starve,'" Nakashuk said.
Akulukjuk started flying school in 2018. He said it was only supposed to take three years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and a fire at the college got in the way.
According to First Nations Technical Institute, the hangar storing the school's entire aircraft fleet, flight school office, and maintenance centre, went up in flames on Feb. 24, 2022. Everything was lost.
While Akulukjuk's residence building didn't burn down, it was damaged by the heat of the nearby fire.
"We were all going to bed that night and we started messaging each other about like 'Anyone else smelling like a campfire?' and a couple of other students were coming back to our residence building and they ran around the halls and told everyone that there is a fire and we need to get out."
Joseph Akulukjuk, 24, of Pangnirtun, Nunavut, has been hired as a pilot by Canadian North to fly planes in Nunavut. (Submitted by Joseph Akulukjuk)
The fire disrupted the entire program.
"We were all devastated, we didn't know how to feel, we thought that was the end of our training."
Thankfully, Akulukjuk was able to stay in the region, and got lessons with the support of other nearby flight schools, eventually graduating from FNTI.
Now, having been hired by Canadian North, he's heading to Yellowknife and Montreal for company training.
'Big win' for airline
Jason Kilabuk, director of Inuit employment and talent strategy at Canadian North, said Akulukjuk had been on the company's radar for many years as he came up through training.
"There's a mass shortage currently of pilots within Canada and the number of Inuit, Indigenous and northern residents that are qualified to be a pilot is even a smaller pool," he said.
As a fully Inuit-owned company, Kilabuk said it's important for Canadian North to give opportunities to people in the communities they serve.
Akulukjuk impressed the hiring team during the interview process because he's good at articulating his ideas and is enthusiastic, Kilabuk said.
"He was prepared and professional in the interview process. We found him smart… [he] has ambition and we're definitely grateful for the opportunity to start his career with Canadian North," he said.
Kilabuk, who's also from Pangnirtung, said he knows Akulukjuk's entire family and watched him grow up. He thinks Akulukjuk, who is Inuk, will be a great role model for kids in the towns he flies to.
"It's not everyday that a member of the community becomes a pilot ... so it's a big win and it's been a long process," he said.
"I am very proud of him. It does take a lot of effort and a lot of work to become a pilot. It's not something that you can try ... [and] give a halfway effort."
Finally, Kilabuk said he's also grateful to everyone who supported Akulukjuk on the journey.
"Even in the background we have several, several individuals that contribute to the success of a singular student," he said.