Prepartion for a Cree airline began not long after the signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975. At a planning session of the Grand Council of the Crees, the Chiefs and board members of the Grand Council identified business ventures that the Cree Nation should be involved in, and air transport was high on the list.
At that time, when Cree leaders and employees of the Cree First Nations had to go south for their meetings, they had to charter one of the five air carriers that were operating in the Cree territory. It was very expensive and took quite a bit of time to get to places like Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa. The Cree Chiefs and members of the Board of Directors of the Grand Council felt that there had to be a direct link between the Cree communities of James Bay, Val d’Or and points south.
There were scheduled services provided by Austin Airways, who had a schedule from Moosonee to Waskaganish and then north to the other communities along the James Bay Coast at that time. It was decided to approach the owners of Austin Airways, the Deluce family of Timmins, Ontario, and propose a joint venture or partnership.
A five-year agreement was drafted, including a buy-out formula once the Crees were in a position to take over the whole operation. The first flight took off in July, 1982 when a Twin Otter flew from Val d’Or to the Cree communities of James Bay and on to Great Whale.
In the initial years, the management of the company was with the Deluce family. But the Crees had controlling representation on the board of directors. In the third year of the partnership, the Crees took controlling interest on the management of the company as well as on the board.
After the fifth year, it was decided that the partnership would be extended by one year. After the sixth year, the Crees bought out the interest of the Deluce family and Air Creebec became 100 per cent owned and operated by the Cree Nation of Quebec.
In 1987, operations were extended to include northwestern and northeastern Ontario. A few years later, the northwestern Ontario operations were sold but the northeastern Ontario operations were retained.
In the early years, the main source of revenue for the company was with the transportation of passengers and cargo. At that time, many of the Cree communities on James Bay did not have access roads and all the goods and services they required had to be flown in. In subsequent years, as the access roads were constructed, the income for Air Creebec came from passengers, charters and contracts with various companies and passengers.
In the late 80s, Air Creebec went through several years of substantial losses, but in the mid-1990s, the operations started making profits. Over the last five years, Air Creebec has enjoyed substantial profits.
From the start-up in 1982 to 1992, the president of Air Creebec was Chief Billy Diamond of Waskaganish, on a part-time basis. In 1992, the Board of Directors felt that the company had grown to the point that it required a full-time president and in November, 1992, Albert Diamond was appointed to the position.
Today, Air Creebec has a fleet of I I aircraft, a business volume of $36 million a year, and employs over 180 people with an annual payroll of $6 million.
When asked about achievements or successes of Air Creebec, Albert Diamond said he is “most satisfied with the fact that almost 50 per cent of our pilots are Native and it is great to see young Native pilots flying the Cree people to their communities. It is my hope that in the coming years the majority of our pilots will be Native.”
Air Creebec now has three routes in Quebec departing from Montreal and two routes in northeastern Ontario from Timmins and Moosonee. Air Creebec was also awarded a three-year contract in March 2003 from the James Bay Energy Corporation to fly the workers for the Eastmain project. The total value of the contract is $19 million.
Since 1987, the members of the Board of Air Creebec have been Cree individuals from the Cree communities and that, in itself, is quite an achievement. In the coming years, things look very good for Air Creebec as it continues to provide air transportation services to Eeyou Istchee.