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Taking wing Starting an airline from scratch takes courage and determination

On July 5, 1982, a bright orange Twin Otter took off from the Val-d’Or airport. After stops in Matagami, Rupert House, Eastmain, Wemindji and Fort George, the plane landed in Whapmagoostui, marking the maiden voyage of Air Creebec and Eeyou Istchee’s foray into the air transportation industry. This summer marks 35 years in the business, an opportunity to reflect on the company’s success and look forward to what the future has in store. “I remember the early days when I was very young, hearing, “Hey, the Crees own an airline now,” says Chief Operating Officer Tanya Pash. “I would have been about eight years old and we had one aircraft. It was something to be proud of – my parents always told me I was a shareholder of an airline!.” What started small has grown steadily over the years, adapting to the needs of the Cree Nation and those who work in northern Quebec and Ontario – while also developing valuable new partnerships and services. Most recently, this has included the creation of medical shuttles for patients who need to get to major hospitals in Val-d’Or and Montreal. “Today, we have 19 aircraft on our certificate,” says Pash. “We are competitive with major airlines, and have the same standards as national airlines such as Air Canada and Air Transat.” Air Creebec’s initial leadership group had to learn quickly and prove people wrong, fighting both unfamiliarity with a competitive industry and stereotypes perpetuated about Indigenous people. “They went into an industry that they had little to no knowledge about,” Pash explains. “Most of them had no formal training and many of them came from the trapline. They were put in a place where they had to succeed in a business environment that they weren’t groomed for – these people were groomed to be trappers. The leadership proved that Crees are capable people, they we are able to succeed.” Pash noted that the birth of Air Creebec came partly out of necessity and partly as a push for Cree self-determination. People like former Grand Chief and company president Billy Diamond looked at their environment and knew that to take Eeyou Istchee’s future into their own hands the Cree needed to be directly involved in transportation on their territory. As Air Creebec President Matthew Happyjack notes, this idea of autonomy was born in 1975 with the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. “Crees were looking for different ideas on how to grow their money,” he told the Nation. “Since the only way to access the communities at that time was by plane, they knew they needed to start an airline.” Getting the company off the ground did require some outside support. However, securing a partnership with the Deluce family, which has since gone on to start Porter Airways, gave Air Creebec access to financial backing, existing infrastructure and a wealth of aviation experience. While things weren’t always easy, starting out with the right partners and growing slowly but surely allowed the company to flourish – the key acquisition being the purchase of the Deluce family’s share of the airline in 1987. Since then Air Creebec has been 100% Cree-owned with all-Cree representation on its board of directors.

“Of course there were growing pains,” says Happyjack. “Getting to know the industry, expanding to Montreal, establishing ourselves with medical and mining companies. We stabilized the company eventually but it was really tough at first.” As Air Creebec continues to grow it must also adapt to new regulations and the ever-changing conditions of Canada’s aviation industry. Most recently, the company was forced to adjust its flight schedule due to new restrictions on the number of hours pilots can fly in a single day. The weekend schedule remains unchanged and while there are now two flights from Montreal to Val-d’Or each weekday, some of the flights to the other Cree communities had to be altered. (See the full schedule at aircreebec.ca) “We’re governed by the highest level of standards available to airlines in Canada,” says Pash. “One of those things is the pilot duty/rest period. They’re going to be limited on the number of hours they’re allowed to fly during the day, limited even further than they were before. What we used to be able to do with one crew will now take two or three. All airlines must continuously adapt to market conditions as well as regulatory conditions. That’s why the airline is phasing in new flights in anticipation of the new regulations. Looking to the future, Happyjack and Pash believe that careful planning, innovation and a team approach are the key ingredients to growing the Air Creebec brand and improving the services it provides to Eeyou Istchee and beyond. “We’ll continue to make long-term partnerships with our major clients,” says Happyjack. “We have safety objectives, operational objectives and financial objectives. That’s the key thing – planning and executing our goals.” Many people play important roles in this story of success. “The board really supports us, and our Cree shareholders are part of the company,” Happyjack emphasizes. “Plus, the employees are the key component of the company – they are the backbone.” Long term, the goal is to grow the company and achieve brand recognition. “I want us to be well-known outside of Eeyou Istchee and the area we serve,” says Tanya Pash. “I want people to know that Air Creebec is a solid airline that provides a safe and reliable service. I want to be right up there with the other 705 operators, like Air Canada and Air Transat, so that when people are flying in an area we serve we’re one of the names that pops into their head.”

 

 Par Joshua Grant (The Nation)

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