Four decades ago, Quebec Premier René Lévesque was skeptical of the idea of Crees running their own airline, telling the late Cree Grand Chief Billy Diamond that airlines already served Cree communities. But in the end, the province had no say: the Cree Nation, using capital from the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), went on to build Air Creebec.
Now the airline is celebrating its 40th anniversary. It started out as a partnership with family-run Austin Airways, with the Crees owning 51%. In 1988, the Cree Nation bought out Austin Airways, and Air Creebec has been 100% Cree-owned ever since.
After the JBNQA signing in 1975, the Cree held a planning session on how to invest and grow their capital. “One of the first things that came up was an airline,” said current Air Creebec President Matthew Happyjack, noting that most communities had no road access, and the only way to get down south was by plane.
Diamond knew the family that ran Austin Airways and negotiated an agreement with them. The rest, as they say, is history.
Happyjack said that the airline service was something special before roads connected most of the communities. “When the airplane came in, everyone would gather and watch it,” he recounted. “They’d watch the people getting on and leaving. Even today it’s still like this; the Elders still watch the planes coming in.”
The fledgling airline began with Twin Otters, before moving on to Beechcraft 1900s, which are 19-passenger turboprops. Then the company turned to Dash 8s, eventually buying 16 of them, which is now used for all its passenger services.
“They’re good planes for the North, efficient,” Happyjack adds, noting that they work well for shorter runways up North. The company also uses two Hawker Siddeley HS 748s for cargo.
At the beginning, Air Creebec ran a strictly passenger service. However, over the past 25 years, they’ve expanded to serve cargo and charter flights, particularly for medical services and mining companies. “During the pandemic, most of our service was medical shuttles,” Happyjack noted.
The company operates three planes that fill medical roles in between the communities. The hangar in Montreal, operated outside of the main Montreal terminal, allows passengers to avoid long airport security lineups, which Happyjack says is particularly helpful for medical passengers.
The 40 years of service have been enough to bring the province around to see the benefits of a Cree-owned airline. During a recent presentation at an aviation summit, Happyjack said government officials told him they were happy to see Air Creebec is thriving, since they serve non-Cree communities as well, including Val-d’Or, Rouyn-Noranda, Moosonee and Timmins.
To mark the anniversary, Happyjack joined other officials in touring the communities served by the airline, between June 29and July 7. “We were there to promote Air Creebec’s 40 years, thank the customers – individuals and companies – and we had snacks, a 40th anniversary cake, and we had a draw,” Happyjack said. He estimates there were at least 50 people at each of the community celebrations.
As for Air Creebec’s future, Happyjack says the airline will go where the demand is, as it always has. “At the beginning, it was for the first 15 years more passengers. Then came along charters,” Happyjack explained. “Then after the demand came, we bought more Dash 8s. It was easier financially for them; we saw the demand was there. We built a hangar in Montreal.”
Like all airlines, Air Creebec was drastically affected by the pandemic, saying it will take five years to get back to 2019 levels. Happyjack is optimistic, however, noting the airline is slowly picking up more passengers every month. The company hopes to go back to offering service six days a week soon if there’s demand.
While they’ve been affected by some of the delays affecting all airlines, they’ve been able to avoid others entirely. As headlines broke about staff shortages and baggage delays at airports across the world, Air Creebec has been able to keep up with demand by controlling all its systems, especially by not outsourcing baggage handling.
However, other delays proved impossible to avoid, including recent construction at Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport closed one landing strip entirely. “There’s lots of planes waiting in Montreal, but we advise our customers,” Happyjack said.
Overall, Happyjack is happy with where the company is. Despite a deficit in 2020, he says the company recovered in 2021, and is “doing good” in 2022. “Our passenger service is picking up. We’re satisfied where we are. We knew it would be ‘slowly but surely’. We’ve managed to weather the storm.”
Benjamin Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation