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CreeWest acquires airline, poised for expansion

CreeWest GP Inc. is marking a milestone, acquiring Northern Skies Air Service hangar and charter service located in Sioux Lookout. The $1.
CreeWest GP Inc.’s Sioux Lookout hangar.

CreeWest GP Inc. is marking a milestone, acquiring Northern Skies Air Service hangar and charter service located in Sioux Lookout.

The $1.5-million acquisition, which was a year in the planning, includes the hangar assets, the Navajo Chieftain aircraft, and shares of the airline. 

It positions CreeWest as the airline operator, although Northern Skies will operate as a division of CreeWest LP through its general partner, CreeWest GP Inc. 

CreeWest secured $245,000 from Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund and a small portion of funding through RBC Aboriginal Banking, but 75 per cent of the deal was completed with CreeWest’s own capital.

“What the Sioux Lookout acquisitions will do for us now is it will give us a good foundation to filter operations to the Timmins area and grow from Timmins to our ownership communities of Weenusk, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Kashechewan First Nations, along with building on new clientele and communities,” said Ron Basaraba, CreeWest’s CEO.

Located at the Sioux Lookout Airport, the 11,250-square-foot hangar can house up to six King Air, PC- 12 type aircraft and currently has three tenants, with room for more. There is currently no other hangar space availability at the airport.

Basaraba said the game plan is to use the facility as a distribution centre. Since the acquisition in October, CreeWest has been renovating a rarely used paint booth into a Northern Skies passenger lobby with a separate entrance for the airline.

Construction is also being done on a threebedroom accommodation, complete with furnishings and kitchenette, for crews to use when overnighting.

Operation of an airline fulfills the mandate set out by CreeWest to build and grow its member communities.

“They want their own airline, and this is small compared to other things,” Basaraba said, “but it’s a start.”

Recognizing that plans for the Ring of Fire have been delayed, Basaraba said CreeWest isn’t banking on Ring activity to grow its business, but he believes Sioux Lookout can position itself as a hub for mining activity for the region.

“What we’ve found in the Sioux Lookout area and the remote communities on that side is that there’s enough sustainability there today, and we’re an open-door policy for any mining opportunities that arise for the future to build on, which would be over and on top of what we’re trying to do now,” he said.

CreeWest currently holds an air transportation contract with De Beers Canada as transportation associate with its Victor Mine. Air Creebec performs the work through a joint venture with CreeWest. “We are adding to competition in the area, for sure, but I think we have a little niche there for grocery hauling, cargo, passenger and then grow with the one aircraft, the Navaho Chieftain that we purchased, grow on that and into another type of aircraft, and filter our operations with this foundation to the Timmins and James Bay coastal areas,” Basaraba said.

To accommodate for the changes, CreeWest has hired a flight operations director and chief pilot, and will be hiring another pilot shortly.

CreeWest isn’t just interested in aviation pursuits; it’s looking to build on its foundation of joint venture projects with other organizations and businesses whose interests align with CreeWest’s.

Currently, its main joint venture is with Air Creebec, which operates scheduled air service between the northern communities in Ontario and Quebec, but it holds other partnerships as well.

“There are businesses around that want to expand their operation and they want to expand them into the First Nations communities,” Basaraba said. “They want to build stronger relations with the First Nations and a lot of them don’t know how to go about doing that or have the contacts to get their foot in the door.”

CreeWest acts as liaison between businesses, receiving remuneration for any increase in business recognized as part of the joint venture. It’s a new concept adopted just last year, but Basaraba believes there’s room to grow.

“In my eyes, if CreeWest can pull in whatever amounts of money per year from these other, non- aviation joint ventures, that’s money we’ve never had before for our First Nations regional group,” he said. “Profitability in our ventures means profitability flows to the communities.”

With growth, more employees will be required. Since the acquisition, CreeWest has also hired a maintenance person, and will be looking for people for a base position and a marketing and networking position.

Part of CreeWest’s focus is to hire First Nations people, but ultimately it’s looking for the best people for the job, Basaraba said.

He’d like to see CreeWest enter into discussions with flight academy schools, as well as northern colleges to get more First Nations people trained in aviation roles.