From Gangster to Gardener: Huu-ay-aht man overcomes barriers to support family

Denise Titian, July 9, 2020

Without a vehicle or drivers licence, Kenneth Joe walks Port Alberni each day with his yard maintenance business. (Denise Titian photo)

Port Alberni, BC — 

It has been nearly 20 years since Huu-ay-aht man Kenneth Joe was dubbed ‘The Pimp of Port Alberni’ in the media, but a lot has changed since then.

The soft spoken, polite Joe invited Ha-Shilth-Sa into his home to talk about how much his life has changed since he was part of the gangster life.

Kenneth Joe, 41, came to Port Alberni in 1999, having been born and raised in Nanaimo, B.C.

Life was rough for Joe as a young adult. He admits to belonging to a gang and was addicted to alcohol and drugs. He has spent time in jail, about 17 years ago.

“I got my Grade 10 in jail,” said Joe.

And that is why he believes he cannot get a regular job. He has taken training to be a firefighter, a traffic control worker and even a professional cook but if he gets to the job interview stage, the doors close when they hear about jail and Grade 10 education.

But Joe doesn’t blame employers for that. It is just another barrier that he must overcome.

When asked what made him want to turn his life around he nodded to his wife, Matilda.

“She helped turn me around,” he said.

The couple has four daughters ranging in ages from three to 23. The eldest daughter is from Kenneth’s previous relationship.

They live in a basement suite in the middle of town. Because Joe can’t get a regular job, the family lives on social assistance. But their suite costs $1,500 a month, taking their entire assistance cheque and even leaving them $5 short every month.

So, Joe has to hustle to provide food and clothing and everything else a family needs.

He began ‘canning’ about 10 years ago, going door-to-door to ask for recyclable beverage containers.

“I would knock on doors, politely introduce myself and explain my situation,” Joe shared.

Besides asking for donated recyclables, he would tell people he was available for odd jobs like walking dogs, washing cars or even washing the dishes.

“I’d even offer to scrub their toilets with my toothbrush,” he said with a chuckle.

Last October Joe was going door-to-door looking for work and donated beverage containers when someone took a picture of him and posted it on social media. It appeared on a community watch-type Facebook page.

“The man didn’t accuse me of anything, there were no racial slurs,” said Joe. All the man said was “watch this man walking around and knocking on doors,” Joe added.

But the post got hot with accusations of racism.

Joe said he commented on the post.

“I told them my situation – no job, no skills, no education; I’m just asking to bum pops cans,” he said.

Joe said things were said that probably shouldn’t have been said and, in the end, the man and Joe both took their posts down and eventually became friends. Joe even received more donations of empties after the exchange.

“I don’t consider it a racial thing; I think maybe people looking at me, maybe they see an addict scouting their neighborhood,” he said.

Starting out with a donated lawn mower, Joe began doing yardwork. With hard work and the help of his wife, he was able to buy a high-quality lawn mower and weed trimmer.

His yardwork season begins in March and he can only take four or five jobs a day because he has no transportation. He walks around Port Alberni in his Hi-Viz vest pushing his lawnmower from job to job.

He gains clients through word-of-mouth and takes bookings through Facebook, phone or text.

“One time this lady posted that she needed someone to weed her garden; I did way more than she asked me to and she was pleased, she promoted me on Facebook,” said Joe.

Joe offers to dig ditches, perimeter drains and general yard maintenance – anything that he has the equipment and the muscle for is on the table. He said he will do household chores too.

With his hard work and dedication to go out every day, Joe says he can make $100 to $120 a day to support his family.

Joe says having his driver’s license would make things easier but that was one of those things he messed up in his younger days. Some of his earnings are going towards paying off $6,000 in accumulated traffic tickets. He has paid it down to $600.

His advice to young people heading toward a life of addiction and crime is don’t do it.

“There’s no life there,” he said. “There’s someone out there struggling with the same mindset as me back then; I hope I could help them turn it around.”

It’s been 17 years since jail, 14 years since he quit heavy drinking and he works hard everyday to reverse the damage…bad credit, bad reputation.

He says he sometimes needs a hand when he’s working and he hopes that he could help someone by having them come work with him to earn a living.

“I would tell them to believe in themselves and call KAJ Grunt Force for work,” he said, adding that is what he calls his business.

Joe hopes to someday have a big work facility filled with all the tools and equipment he needs to keep working.

As his little girls prepare to head out for a walk with their big sister they stop to hug their father, telling him they love him. For Joe, they are worth all his efforts.