A signing ceremony to mark the merger of First Air and Canadian North was held in Montreal on Friday afternoon, even though regulatory approval has not yet been granted.
Cheers erupted after representatives from Makivik Corporation, owners of First Air and representing the Inuit of northern Quebec, and the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, owners of Canadian North on behalf of the Inuit in the NWT's Beaufort Delta, signed the agreement.
Officials from the airlines didn't open the doors to a Makivik boardroom until almost two hours after their scheduled 3 p.m. Eastern press conference.
"We were so far apart but I think we were able to overcome the obstacles that we had at the beginning," Charlie Watt, president of Makivik Corporation, said of the deal, which has been talked about for years. "Hopefully the Government of Canada is going to be able to understand that we need to be able to do this on our own without being told what to do because we know the North better than anybody else."
Duane Smith, chair and CEO of the Inuvialuit Corporation, said cooperation between the partners is critical.
"We cover a large area and we have to help each other out," he said. "This is an example of how we help each other, and we're all going to grow from it and benefit from it. I just see lots of positive things coming out of this."
Inuit leaders from Nunavut have been invited to be part of the new ownership structure, according to Johnny Adams, chair of First Air's board.
"We're still missing our Nunavut partners. We're expecting them. We've invited them to the table. They're looking at it and we're optimistic," Adams said. "We're hopeful that they'll be able to join us as well. That will truly be an Arctic airline where we encompass our brothers and sisters from Nunavut as well... We've always been divided and conquered with whatever businesses were started. From now on we have to show the example and work together."
Makivik and the IRC still expect the merger will be formally approved by regulatory agencies by the end of the year.
The unified airline would be 100 per cent Inuit owned. If permitted, the new entity would be headquartered in Ottawa, would use the name Canadian North and would adopt First Air's marketing brand, including its inuksuk logo.
Charlie Lyall, a longtime business leader from the Kitikmeot, said he sees more downside than upside in the proposed merger.
When he flies from Yellowknife to get back home to Taloyoak, the planes are usually full already, he said.
"Now you're going to cut that capacity in half," said Lyall, who served as President of the Kitikmeot Corporation for 18 years and was a founding board member of Nunavut Trust.
He fears the merger will mean longer wait times in Yellowknife to get on fewer flights, possibly sometimes being forced to stay the night.
"With no competition you can be sure that the airfares are going to go up. To me it doesn't make a lot of sense," said Lyall.
He also suspects that there will be job losses.
"How many people are they going to have on the ground in the communities? If there's four of them working at Canadian and five of them working at First Air, are they going to have nine people running the airline (in a single community)?" Lyall asked doubtfully.
On July 24, Iqaluit city council passed motions calling on the Government of Nunavut to attract more national carriers and for the City of Iqaluit to promote the capital as a viable destination.