KUUJJUAQ, Quebec - Air Inuit, collectively owned by the 9,000 Inuit of
Nunavik, will play an integral role in the development of the Arctic
region, which comprises the northernmost third of Quebec.
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 and/or 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 record with no crashes, according to its
30-year-old chairman, George Berthe (Inuk).
The carrier's most recent route addition is a link between Montreal and
Nunavik via Dash 8 turboprop, making the north-south connection faster and
more efficient. The region currently benefits 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. The
sporting outfitters based in Kuujjuaq, Nunavik's largest town, handle about
3,000 clients a year, the majority of them currently 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,
"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 that serves the entire Arctic and is fully owned as well by
the Nunavik Inuit through Makivik Corp., 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, a critical discount in a region where anything that has to
move long distances 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 is
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 takeoff, according to
Berthe: "The North can only grow. It's really the land of opportunity."