The sky’s the limit: Nunavik carrier looks to the future

Published in Indian Country Today in 2005. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Air Inuit, collectively owned by the 9,000 Inuit of Nunavik, will play an integral part in the development of the Arctic region, which comprises the northernmost third of Quebec and has its capital in Kuujjuaq. The largest and oldest commercial airline serving the province, the profitable carrier provides scheduled, charter, cargo, and emergency service to Nunavik, a peninsula that lies west of Ungava Bay and is home to 14 small communities.

The carrier got its start when Nunavik’s Inuit purchased a DeHavilland Beaver to transport those who were involved in negotiating their land-claims agreement of 1975. When the claim was completed, that small plane became the flagship of a new airline, which now boasts 21 craft, including a Dash-8, a 37-seater commuter turboprop that is the world standard in its class; six Hawker Siddeley HS748s, which carry passengers/or and freight; and several Twin Otters, which can operate on short runways. 

Since Air Inuit took to the skies, it has logged more than 250,000 hours in the air and carried more than one million passengers. In addition to having Transport Canada’s highest rating for maintenance, Air Inuit has a flawless crash record, according to its 30-year-old chairman, George Berthe (Inuk), shown above.

The carrier’s most recent addition to its route map is a link between Montreal and Nunavik via Dash-8 turboprop, making the north-south connection faster and more efficient. The region is currently benefitting from a surge in mineral exploration and construction, said Berthe, which has allowed the airline to expand, adding five planes in the last 18 months. Meanwhile, tourism is Nunavik’s next big economic opportunity, according to Johnny Adams (Inuk), president of Kativik Regional Government, which administers the region.

Since commercial shipping to the area handles only freight, any visitors — whether businesspeople or hunters and fishermen — will arrive by air. Currently, the sporting outfitters based in Kuujjuaq, the largest town in Nunavik, handle about 3,000 clients a year, the majority of them coming from the United States during spring, summer, and fall. With infrastructure improvements and greater public awareness of the area, that number could easily increase, Adams said.

            “Sport fishing, for example, is undeveloped; there are something like 155 Arctic char streams up here, and many have never seen a hook,” said Adams. “We have the airlines, so we’re looking seriously at developing other facilities for tourists. Because it’s expensive to travel up here, we’re perceived as an exotic destination and must have upscale hotels, restaurants, and conference centers to reflect that. We’re also creating three provincial parks.”

            And they’ll all have to book airline seats – on Air Inuit, or on First Air, a carrier serving the entire Arctic, which is also fully  owned by the Nunavik Inuit through Makivik Corporation, which was set up to take care of their interests following the 1975 agreement.

            Air Inuit also supports its local economy by giving entrepreneurs a leg up. Small businesses receive breaks on shipping and travel charges during their first few years. The discount is critical in a region where anything that has to move a long distance goes by air.

            Berthe pointed out that it’s a win-win situation: “Once they’re established, they move up to regular charges, so it’s in Air Inuit’s interest to have more successful businesses around using our services.”

            The airline considers itself a community-based employer. Preferential hiring guarantees local people a shot at careers with the carrier. By working with the schools, the airline prepares high-school kids for a variety of jobs; five pilots are graduated each year. “Becoming a pilot a popular choice,” said Adams, a former Air Inuit captain who has owned air-charter and helicopter companies. “Some stay with it, and some use it as a steppingstone to bigger and better things.”

            Getting a seat in the cockpit is not a breeze, though. “Our chief of pilots interviews the students in order to select the most serious youth – the ones who are Air Inuit material,” said Berthe.

            Air Inuit’s pilots — and Nunavik — are ready for take-off, according to Berthe: “The North can only grow. It’s really the land of opportunity.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photo courtesy Air Inuit.

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