Buy Cree. It’s a message most people agree with, but do they always put their money where their mouth is? Air Creebec is about to test people’s commitment to “buying Cree” by introducing a direct flight from Montreal to Chisasibi in September.

The flight will be faster and cheaper than the Montreal-LG-2 flight now offered by Inter-Canadian Airlines. But the question remains: Will travellers switch over?

Already, the Cree health and social services board is saying it wants to keep its options open and isn’t hurrying to switch over from Canadian. The fight is on for the Health Board’s $2-2.5 million in yearly traffic out of Chisasibi, nearly all of which now goes on Canadian Airlines.

At the moment, Air Creebec offers no direct flight and its passengers must endure the ups and downs of the “milk run,” which stops in the other coastal communities before it heads off to Montreal.

Residents of Chisasibi, which is the biggest Cree community, seem to prefer Canadian. Even though Canadian flies out of LG-2,100 kilometres away from Chisasibi, it’s cheaper and the direct flight is faster.

“I’d rather take Canadian,” said one local Cree. “I would take Air Creebec if it was a direct flight and the price was right.”

And that’s just what Air Creebec will offer. Starting in September, a speedy, leather-seated, 19-seat Beechcraft 1900D will be flying the Montreal-Chisasibi route with stop-overs in Chibougamau and LG-2.

Total flying time: just over 3h30. Cost of a two-way ticket (bought in advance): $499.12.

On paper, Air Creebec offers the better package. Canadian’s flying time between Montreal and LG-2 is also 3h30, but the drive between Chisasibi and LG-2 adds an extra hour to the trip. Canadian charges $595.76 for a ticket bought a week in advance.

Still, Lawrence Potter, head of finances for the health board, is cautious about switching over to Air Creebec. “We won’t commit to Air Creebec, not on a pledged basis,” he said. “Fortunately, they’re both out there. It gives us that latitude.”

Potter prefers Canadian because it uses a bigger plane, a 42-passenger ATR 42. This means less people get bumped off due to overbooking than on Air Creebec’s smaller plane, he said. Another concern: The Cree airline’s smaller plane can’t take patients on a stretcher.

Potter said the health board books close to 40 staff and patients a week on the Chisasibi-Montreal route and another 40 weekly on the Chisasibi-Val d’Or. Almost all presently fly Canadian.

Air Creebec president Albert Diamond expressed frustration with the lack of response from the health board in years gone by. “Everybody will say we have to support Cree business. But a lot of it is lip-service. It does get discouraging,” he said.

Diamond said a bigger plane can be easily put on if the need and demand are there. He noted that the health board’s costs arc increased by the need for a daily transport service to LG-2.

Last March, James Bobbish, executive director of the health board, was mandated by the board of directors to study Air Creebec’s offer of a new schedule. The board is waiting for his findings.