Aboriginal owned and operated airline providing link to Northern communities
By Derek Gagnon
It has been a long and arduous journey for Amik Aviation owner Oliver Owen. His determination to fulfill his dream of flying paved the way to his successful airline business.
Oliver was born in a log cabin on Little Grand Rapids First Nation. When he was very young, he and his two siblings were given up by their mother, as she could not afford to provide care for them.
“When I was about 14 years old, my mom married my step-dad and was able to take the three of us back in. At the time, my step-dad worked for natural resources looking after fire towers. The only way to get to these locations was by airplane,” remembers Oliver. It was these family flights that first ignited his interest in flying.
His step-dad later took a job at a remote lodge; which of course meant more flying, furthering Oliver’s excitement and determination to one-day fly his own plane.
At the age of 18, Oliver began working at a lodge. He had promised himself that he would get his pilot’s license, but first, he needed to earn money.
He saved the money he made at that lodge, and in the fall of 1978 he went to St. Andrews Airport where he started working at Point West Aviation, later Winnipeg Aviation. With $1,200 to his name, he rented an apartment at Notre Dame and Kate Street in Winnipeg and commuted via Beaver Bus to the corner of Highway 8 and Highway 27, walking the rest of the way to the airport. Occasionally, during the cold winter months, he’d luck out and get a ride.
“Of course I ran out of money. I went to Indian Affairs (now Indigenous and Northern Affairs) and asked for their assistance in funding my pilot’s license. They promptly told me, ‘No, but, we will help you to become a truck driver.’ I didn’t even have a driver’s license at this point,” he says. Remaining true to his dream, Oliver declined the offer.
He returned to St. Andrew’s Airport and began working with Little Grand Rapids Air Service, cleaning planes, hangars and doing little jobs until he was finally able to pay for his private pilot’s license in 1979.
With his first license in hand, Oliver set his sights on the bigger task of getting a commercial pilot’s license and took up working at a store in Little Grand Rapids. Around that time, the Southeast Resource Development Council (SERDC) was formed and took over the programs from Indian Affairs. Oliver approached the SERDC about funding for his commercial license and received an immediate positive response.
With the resources in hand, he began training, first at St. Andrew’s and later at Gimli due to its onsite residence. Oliver obtained his commercial license, twin engine rating and instrument rating in 1983.
Oliver worked for various companies over the next few years and had aspirations of becoming an airline pilot. However, as fate would have it, a different opportunity presented itself before that dream could be realized.
The SERDC had an airplane and was in need of a pilot. Oliver was their guy. He started flying people back and forth from Northern communities.
“I thought to myself, ‘gee, this would be a good way for me to start my own business,’” said Oliver.
Birth of a Beaver
Amik is the Anishinaabe language word for ‘Beaver.’
In 2004, Oliver registered Amik Aviation. But before he could start the business, he needed to have appropriately accredited staff, and he needed a plane.
“I went to the Communities Economic Development Fund, a provincial government program based in Thompson for help. They must have seen something in me because they gave me an airplane. It was like ‘wow!’” Oliver said.
In 2006 Oliver got the plane, a Cessna 185, and finally received his license to operate Amik Aviation in 2008. In the meantime, he had been working at the store he has in Little Grand Rapids to help pay for the plane. By 2009, Oliver needed a second plane. After leasing one for the summer, he began looking for something a little bigger. His search took him first to Vancouver, then to Minneapolis. The first plane he looked at turned out to be a lemon, but before he left he managed to secure a Cessna 208 that is still in his fleet today.
Over time, Amik Aviation began to grow.
“It’s been very good because people know me. I used to fly for other air services, including what is now my competition, and I’ve been flying like this since 1983,” says Oliver.
When Amik Aviation first started, Oliver was the operations manager and the chief pilot. Slowly he grew his staff, and with more planes came the need for new people, as well as a hangar.
Now, between the St. Andrew’s Airport location and the location at Little Grand Rapids, Amik Aviation boasts a staff of 20 during the peak summer season.
The business has become a family affair, with Oliver’s son Logan serving as chief pilot and another son, Terrence, serving as operations manager for Amik.
Ultimately, Amik Aviation became so much more than Oliver even dreamed of when he was young.
“All I wanted to do was fly my own airplane. I never thought I’d own my own business or anything like that,” said Oliver.
“I just wanted to fly.”