Bearskin Airlines' roots are deep in the soil of Northern Ontario. John Hegland founded the company on July 17, 1963, naming it after Bearskin Lake, a remote First Nations community located 270 miles northeast of Sioux Lookout.
Henri Boulanger, and Bert Cone took over the company in 1965 and operated it as an air taxi service using float equipped aircraft. Harvey Friesen, originally from Warman, Sask., was a pilot for the company before purchasing his controlling interest in 1977.
Cliff Friesen, Harvey's brother, purchased his interest in 1978 and was Executive Vice President. Other owners of the company prior to 2011 included Vice President of Operations, Karl Friesen (unrelated), Rick Baratta, Vice President of Finance and Brad Martin, Director of Operations.
In 1977, the company began its first scheduled route, carrying passengers between Big Trout Lake and Sioux Lookout. In 1978 a base operation was established in Sioux Lookout and a second scheduled route was launched, between Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay. Shortly thereafter, Cliff Friesen moved to Thunder Bay to establish another base operation.
In the late 70's and early 80's, the provincial government embarked upon an extensive airfield construction program in Ontario's remote First Nations communities. Bearskin took advantage of this opportunity to commence scheduled service with wheeled aircraft throughout the north. For many years, Bearskin Airlines provided a vital link to more than 20 First Nation communities accessible only by air.
Throughout the 80's and early 90's Bearskin continued to expand and enhance it's service to many Northwestern Ontario cities, providing connections to Air Canada in Thunder Bay and Winnipeg. Using newly acquired 19 seat Fairchild Metroliners, expansion continued throughout Northeastern Ontario in the mid 90's, followed by Northern Manitoba in 1999. By the summer of 2003, Bearskin Airlines had expanded to include scheduled service to almost 40 destinations.
In early 2003 Bearskin sold its northern assets to Wasaya Airways who took control of Bearskin's scheduled passenger service to 21 First Nation communities. Wasaya is wholly owned by a number of Northwestern Ontario First Nation communities.
Following the sale to Wasaya, Bearskin Airlines rationalized its routes and equipment to include more southern markets within Ontario and a single aircraft type - the Fairchild Metroliner.
On January 1, 2011, Exchange Income Corporation (TSX: EIF) completed its acquisition of Bearskin Airlines as first announced on September 15, 2010. EIC is a Canadian corporation who, in addition to Bearskin Airlines, also owns Perimeter Aviation, Keewatin Air and Calm Air along with specialty manufacturing companies in Canada and the United States.
For more information on Exchange Income Corporation, please visit www.exchangeincomecorp.ca.
In the fall of 2017 Exchange Income Corporation made the decision to join Bearskin Airlines and Perimeter Aviation to strengthen both airlines and facilitate and encourage continued growth. This merger included a mandate to keep the best of these two northern aviation icons and together explore and develop new offerings and services for our customers. The merger was completed at Dec 31, 2018.
Although technically Bearskin Airlines (the legal business entity) no longer exists, a decision was also made by Exchange Income Corporation to continue operating the Bearskin Brand of service within the new larger (Perimeter Aviation) airline.
Today, the "Bear" continues to serve 11 destinations in Ontario and Winnipeg, Manitoba. No other airline offers better connecting service between NW Ontario and NE Ontario. Thunder Bay acts as Bearskin's major hub, linking Northern Ontario's 5 largest cities to NW Ontario and to Winnipeg.