Aerial Entrepreneurs of The North
By Rajitha Sivakumaran
The annual Missinippi Airways Ice Fishing Derby, a day devoted to fishing in Manitoba’s Churchill River, took place in March. A lucky contestant went home with an impressive first prize of $40,000, but the First Nations community in Pukatawagan was a winner too; all proceeds went to the Pukatawagan Youth Empowerment Fund. That’s just one of the ways Manitoba-based Missinippi Airways is lending a hand around its home base. In fact, the company’s very own existence arose to address the needs of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation (MCCN), the First Nations people who inhabit the area.
“Missinippi Airways has some humble beginnings,” said Chief Arlen Dumas, who serves as both the airline’s president and the chief of the MCCN.
In the early 1980s, many community members made a living as trappers and fishers; they used the natural resources of their territory as their ancestors had done before them. At the time, these individuals would have to charter planes from independent contractors to help ship their products. When the cost of flying and freight became too expensive, the leadership of the day formulated a business venture that would persist for many decades to come. It was decided that the best way would be to invest in their own plane and do the shipping themselves. And so in 1987, Missinippi Airways was born.
“It was out of necessity and a desire to provide for ourselves and in doing so that allowed for our community to benefit,” Chief Dumas said.
Over the course of 30 years, the company has become the largest privately-owned employer airline in the province. Equipped with a 52-person crew and state-of-the-art fleet, it is hard to imagine the airline’s modest beginnings where a single plane, a pilot and a general manager summed up its name.
Owned by the MCCN, the company is now one of the oldest airlines in northern Manitoba, with a base in The Pas and offices in Winnipeg, Thompson, Norway House and Pukatawagan. Decades of dominating the air has brought forth an expansion in both services offered and geography. The company serves First Nations communities in northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Nunavut and offers scheduled flights, air charter services and most importantly, Missinippi Air-Care, an award-winning air ambulance service that has greatly benefited the people of the North.
“We are a 100 percent First Nations airline, but our clientele is everyone. We serve everyone,” Chief Dumas said. Apart from bringing in trade and tourism, the airline is used by various government agencies like Manitoba Hydro. Missinippi Air-Care, in particular, is impacting the lives of First Nations people living in Canada’s far north.
“I think that it is important to acknowledge that the strength of the airline is reflective of the strength of the community. In a time where there was essentially no First Nations operator, we had embarked in investing in our airline and the community has supported it all these years and has helped us make it a strong, viable company. I’m very proud of our airline. We are happy that it has come and turned into what it is today,” Chief Dumas said.
The philosophy behind the company
This year the company celebrated its 30th anniversary. How do you stay in business for this long? Part of the answer is the flexibility that accompanies ownership. “Because our company is our own company, we’ve molded it and shaped it,” Chief Dumas said. Tinkering with a business philosophy that focuses on quality service rather than profit has been the main instigator behind the company’s success. Good service extends not only to community members but to anybody who chooses to fly with Missinippi Airways.
“All of the communities that we operate in or anyone who’s our client, we treat them like they’re part of our family, part of our ownership,” Chief Dumas said. “We ensure that our employees are respectful and courteous and go above and beyond to assist and accommodate. I think that is what has allowed for us to blossom in the way that we have.” The chief spoke anecdotally of an elderly Brochet woman flown home after a taxing hospital stay. For her, the best part of the experience was the flight home, where she was treated courteously and with care by the nurse on board.
There have been, of course, a few challenges along the way but the chief, with his can-do attitude, curtailed the effects, saying, “I think the challenges are all the same. Everyone faces similar challenges.” As with any airline, the cost of flying, specifically fuel, is an ever-present problem. Constant vigilance when it comes to safety is another task that needs to be checkmarked on a regular basis. Northern weather only adds to safety concerns, and although the chief admits that the weather does cause extra difficulties, the remedy is simply a sound maintenance program.
“Another aspect of our philosophy is that we ensure that all of our regulations are met, that safety programs are sound, that we go above and beyond to ensure that we are adhering and following all the regulations that we need to follow,” he said.
What the chief wants the public to know is that the airline industry provides very lucrative jobs. However, this industry, he says, is a fairly exclusive one. “We need to bend some of those borders in certain respects so that we can allow people some insight into how things are run and how we want to move forward,” he said. The airline itself is in the midst of expanding its close-knit workforce as the company toys with the idea of expansion.
“I think that there is always a possibility,” Chief Dumas said. “Technology changes, aircrafts change, governments change, and there is always an appetite for doing something different. I think that aligns with our philosophy anyway, but at the moment we are content with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. If an opportunity arises for further expansion, then I think we can do that. I think sometimes that necessity dictates for that to happen anyways.”