Harvey Friesen, a business icon for Northern Ontario, and the former president of Bearskin Airlines, died Sunday in Palm Springs, California. He was 65 years old.
“The whole Bearskin Airlines family is very saddened by this news,” the airline said in a statement to Northern Ontario Business. “We want to extend our thoughts and prayers to Harvey's family and friends. We also wish to respect the privacy of his family at this time.”
Friesen's earliest ambition was to become a commercial pilot.
While in high school, he drove a school bus to pay for his pilot's licence. After he graduated, he worked at a gyprock factory in Saskatoon to pay for his flight hours.
He later took a job at a grocery in northwestern Ontario's Big Trout Lake First Nation, where he had the chance to fly a small plane to pick up supplies.
Friesen hauled firewood and stocked shelves at the store, occasionally earning the chance to hit the skies for what was the original Bearskin Airlines.
Bush pilot Otto John Hegland founded the company in 1963.
In 1972, Friesen purchased half the company. Five years later he bought the remaining half.
“I’ve always liked to eye opportunities to see the potential in things,” Friesen told Northern Ontario Business in 2008.
By 1978, he moved the airline towards scheduled charter and passenger services. He later sold half the business to his brother Cliff, who served as its executive vice-president.
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s Bearskin expanded and enhanced its service to many northwestern Ontario cities, and provided connections to Air Canada in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg.
The company acquired 19 seat Fairchild Metroliners, and expansion continued throughout northeastern Ontario in the mid 1990s and Manitoba later in the decade.
By the summer of 2003, Bearskin Airlines had expanded to include scheduled service to almost 40 destinations.
On Jan. 1, 2011, Bearskin Airlines sold its operations and assets to Manitoba-based Exchange Income Corporation (EIC) in a $32.5-million deal.
“(Exchange Income Corporation's) track record with their other aviation companies was a key driver in our decision to sell,” Friesen said in a release at the time. “It is a rare combination to find a buyer that has the access to capital that EIC brings yet still enables us to keep our core culture and values that have driven this company to its current level of success.”
The company maintains its head office in Sioux Lookout and employs more than 300 people throughout Ontario and Manitoba. Its administrative office, another maintenance and pilot base are located in Thunder Bay.
Funeral arrangements, and the cause of death, have not yet been announced.