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First Nations Business Award of Excellence: CreeWest GP Inc.

“We still hold the Air Creebec joint venture, but we also are now our own identity. We are officially an airline.”

Blue skies are ahead for CreeWest GP Inc.

The First Nation-owned general partnership is poised for expansion after experiencing some turbulent early years. The recent acquisitions of an airport hangar and two Sioux Lookout aviation companies is being looked upon as the launching pad toward the regional organization’s ultimate goal of providing air service to its home communities on the James Bay coast.

CreeWest GP Inc. was formally established in 2006 by the chiefs of Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Weenusk First Nations. It was born out of an impact benefit agreement signed with DeBeers Canada.

The mandate was to create business ventures to ensure the James Bay coastal communities would capture the spinoff benefits from Victor diamond mine.

A limited partnership was formed to carry out the business plan.

The creation of a First Nations-owned airline was regarded as an economic building block.

Entering as neophytes in the aviation field, the inexperience of the fledgling group showed with some costly deals and bad business arrangements that included purchasing a Beechcraft King Air 200, an aircraft that was ill-suited for their purposes.

To set a new course and to bring their finances under control, 36-year aviation veteran Ron Basaraba was recruited as the new CEO in 2012.

“What I walked into was worse than I thought. When I got into the nuts and bolts of it, there were red flags all over the place,” he said.

CreeWest was living off the remuneration of an air transportation contract signed with DeBeers, with that work subcontracted to Air Creebec.

The King Air was sold and money used – together with a $245,000 Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund grant and a commercial bank loan – to make a $1.5-million purchase of a large hangar at the Sioux Lookout Airport and shares of a charter service, Northern Skies Air Service, in 2013.

Northern Airborne Maintenance was added to the fold in 2014, allowing them to work on their aircraft and those of 20 external customers. The two companies are now divisions of CreeWest.

About $450,000 was spent on hanger upgrades with a new passenger lobby and overnight accommodations for flight crew.

The Sioux Lookout assets were acquired to position CreeWest to serve the mining players in the Ring of Fire. With those activities dampened, there’s been new opportunity to provide service to the 32 remote First Nations communities in the area. CreeWest provides air charter services to various local social and government departments, including Health Canada, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and Tikinagan Child and Family Services.

After starting with one Navajo Chieftain aircraft, there is now three in the fleet. Staff has grown from two employees to 18.

“We’ve turned it around,” said Basaraba. “In three years, we’ve actually accomplished quite a bit.”

Another potential opportunity exists to be a partner in a regional food distribution network to deliver affordable and nutritious food to the remote communities.

“I’ve made it known that we want to be a player in that,” said Basaraba. “We are 100 per cent First Nation-owned, so we are a good fit.”

Besides the original Air Creebec joint venture, CreeWest has strike similar agreements to promote both aviation and non-aviation businesses in Logikal Code, WinMar Restoration Timmins, McCabe Promotions, and Wisk Air Helicopters.

“We’re open to any kind of business arrangement or deal that makes good business sense,” said Basaraba. In the years to come, he envisions adding turbine aircraft to the fleet and delivering on their original goal of servicing the James Bay coastal communities.

“We still hold the Air Creebec joint venture, but we also are now our own identity. We are officially an airline.”