Feds to help small airlines deliver essential services to remote northern communities

New support measures include creation of a $75-million funding program to help airlines bring food, medical supplies and other essential goods and services to remote communities, says the federal government.

'This support is positive news for all northerners,' says Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal

A file photo of Grise Fiord, Nunavut's northernmost fly-in community. Federal ministers announced new measures on Thursday to support airlines that provide essential services to about 140 remote communities across Canada. (CBC | High Arctic Haulers)

The federal government says it will help support small airlines that bring essential services and goods to remote communities.

In a news release Thursday, the federal government announced new measures that address the "unprecedented crisis in the aviation industry" caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said the pandemic had a major impact on small airlines that provide service to remote communities.

Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal and Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller announced how they would support those airlines — "to avoid the disruptions that a sudden loss in these services would cause."

The government of Canada says it will seek agreements with provinces and territories to make sure aviation services continue for at least six months. The federal government is also creating a $75-million funding program for the first six months, and will invest up to $174 million over 1.5 years to maintain the essential air services, if needed.

The funding is in partnership with contributions from the provinces and territories, states the news release.

More funding depends on "the needs of the communities and the pace of recovery of air travel into remote communities," it states.

The money will help continue to supply food, medical supplies and other essential goods and services to communities, says the government.

I do hope that those airlines who aren't scheduled airlines, are looked after as well, and they survive this.- Chris Reynolds, Air Tindi president

For this program, the government says it considered about 140 remote communities across Canada that can only be accessed by air, or have limited transportation through seasonal ice roads, ferries or remote railways, states the news release.

The government says a fixed amount will be allocated to each jurisdiction with remote communities, based on historical passenger volumes.

Funding breakdown still in the works

Each province or territory would determine its minimum essential services to remote communities, and work on a program with airlines to deliver those.

The government's list includes remote communities from seven provinces and all three territories.

"This support is positive news for all northerners," said Minister Vandal, in the news release.

In an interview with CBC, Vandal said it's essential for provinces and territories to be involved in these discussions.

"These decisions can't be made out of Ottawa. They need to be made by territories and the provinces," he said.

Vandal said he couldn't break down how much funding each jurisdiction will get, but those are "the details that are going to be ironed out" in the following weeks.

A Canadian North spokesperson said in an email to CBC that the company is pleased about the funding announcement. (Supplied/Canadian North)

In an emailed statement, a Nunavut government spokesperson said the territory plans to provide more specific details later next week on how it will contribute over the next six months and onwards.

"We are excited to see significant federal funding to help meet our critical transportation needs," the spokesperson wrote in part.

"We will review this proposed funding carefully."

The Yukon government said in an email Friday that it's "very pleased" with the federal commitment.

A government spokesperson said it's "particularly pleased" to have the flexibility for Yukon to work directly with local airlines to determine how funding is allocated. 

Airlines say it's a positive step

"It's good news," said Chris Reynolds, president of Air Tindi. 

Reynolds said the funding is a positive step for airlines but he's not sure what the announcement means for his N.W.T.-based company yet.

He also had some concerns for others in the aviation industry that don't deal with cargo and delivery of goods.

"The supply chain is, in my opinion ... not just scheduled services, it's so much more than that," he said, speaking about local helicopter companies and those who provide medevac services.

"I do hope that those airlines who aren't scheduled airlines, are looked after as well, and they survive this."

Canadian North spokesperson Kevin Kablutsiak said in an email to CBC that the company is going to ensure that governments are "aware of the support we will need to maintain uninterrupted service throughout our entire network until the COVID-19 crisis subsides."

Air North president Joe Sparling, who is based in Whitehorse, says northern carriers were especially hard hit by the pandemic, partly because they serve a small market.

He said the biggest need for financial support was in April, but the company is still coming up short every month and says there will be "a ways to go" before the company breaks even when it comes to operating flights.

"What we'd like to see more than anything else is traffic rebound to sufficient volumes so we can stand on our own two feet," Sparling said.

"It's uncomfortable for us to have to ask for relief funding and it's uncomfortable for tax payers to have to provide it."

When asked how the federal government will help small airlines rebound once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Minister Vandal said that's a difficult question to answer right now.

"We are going to be there for Canadians and for the North until the end of the pandemic," he said. 

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With files from John Van Dusen


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