Amik Aviation: Connecting Communities

By Tania Moffat

Amik Aviation is an Aboriginal owned and operated airline that provides a much-needed link to northern communities. Founded by Oliver Owen in 2008, Amik is a true family-run business. Oliver’s three boys play crucial roles in the company as does his wife, Valerie.

Making his way in the aviation industry wasn’t easy, but Oliver Owen’s vision and unwavering commitment to his dream transfigured access to transportation in remote Manitoba communities. A visionary, Owen improved air travel in First Nation communities and played a pioneering role in our province’s and Canada’s aviation history.

Chasing a dream

Owen’s fascination with airplanes and flying began at a young age. Born in Little Grand Rapids, he spent much of his childhood growing up in Pauingassi, and experienced first-hand the transportation obstacles remote northern communities faced. Planes were essential for supplies, travel, and medical assistance, but they weren’t always readily accessible or affordable.

Several northern Manitoba communities have restricted access to transportation. In the past, air service was available, but it didn’t provide regular service within communities or into Winnipeg. At the time, most flights arrived in Arnes, over an hour north of Winnipeg, leaving passengers responsible for finding transportation to and from the city.

Often getting to the airport itself was an arduous task. Communities such as Pauingassi didn’t have an airport. Residents had to travel more than 40 minutes by boat, over mini rapids, and then organize ground transportation to get to the landing strip located another half a mile away. A challenging trip at the best of times, it was a nightmare for any medical emergency.

Working for the community

“Oliver’s only motivation has been to make air travel a little more convenient for his home communities,” shares his wife, Valerie. Owen has worked in the aviation industry for 41 years, and today, his business Amik Aviation provides essential regularly scheduled commercial air service for First Nation communities. Passenger and cargo services to Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi, Bloodvein First Nations, Berens River, and Poplar River are offered twice-daily, six days a week and once on Sundays.

Owen built docks in the centres he flies into, providing residents with convenient, daily service from community to community and St. Andrews Airport, 20 minutes north of Winnipeg. Initially, before other services were available Oliver even provided transportation to and from the city.

His regularly serviced flights lead to even more positive impacts for these communities and their residents. Little Grand Rapid’s nursing station and RCMP office used to be located near the airport on the opposite side of the lake from the reserve; they now have moved into the communities. Scheduled flights are also more affordable than charters, allowing more residents to travel.

“He has made quite an improvement in travel needs in the First Nation area,” says Harold Crow, past Chief of Pauingassi and once long-term council member at Little Grand Rapids. “Most of the time, people would struggle to get to the airport across the lake. He made a difference; he made it easier for us.”

Residents living on the reserve rely on receiving lower cost items from Winnipeg. “Before, a lot of freight was lost at the airport because no one was there to look after it. Dogs would get into it and destroy everything. Now, Oliver brings the freight to his base and co-ordinates its delivery. He also takes letters to the city for community members at no charge; the cost is $25 per envelope with other services,” shares Harold.

“Oliver speaks Ojibway very well and hires First Nation people who also speak our language. This makes a huge difference for our elders who travel with him,” Harold adds. “He also keeps a small plane at his base in Little Grand Rapids. If his plane wasn’t there, it would be expensive to charter a flight to go fishing or hunting. He is always making improvements to his service.”

A pioneer of aviation

Owen’s idea to use the Cessna 208 Amphibian Caravan was the impetus that managed to effect real change for transportation in the north. The Cessna 208 Amphibian Caravan is a utility-orientated aircraft that, as Oliver has proven, is equally adept at passenger transportation. He was the first person to use the Cessna 208 Amphibian Caravan for scheduled commercial transportation services in Canada.

Owen’s continual perseverance in pursuit of his dream to fly has paved the way for many notable recognitions in the industry, including that of an innovator in Manitoba’s aviation industry. Manitoba Aviation Council (MAC) presented Owen with their most prestigious award, the 2019 Pioneer of Flight Award, for his pioneering use of the Cessna 208 for regularly scheduled passenger service. The award celebrates the careers of men and women whose drive and determination have had a significant impact on Manitoba Aviation.

(Tania Moffat is a freelance writer, editor, publisher and photographer. She has worked in the publishing industry for the last 15 years on a wide variety of B2B and consumer publications, both in print and online. She can be reached at info@chiccountrylife.com.)