Canadian George Berthe appears to be a typical corporate success. At only 35 years old, he’s been the corporate secretary of the Makivik Corporation for more than 10 years, with responsibility for day-to-day operations. He is also the chairman of Air Inuit, a Makivik company.
Like the indigenous Inuit people themselves, George Berthe is a hearty survivor. He was raised in a house with few luxuries and no running water. He learned English when he started school. And he was taught the values of his Inuit culture — primarily sharing and hard work — as well as the traditional survival skills of hunting and fishing in this rugged environment.
This notion of sharing is an essential part of Berthe’s DNA and the singular mission of Air Inuit, which serves the Inuit of Nunavik, an area of Quebec north of the 55th parallel. It’s home to approximately 10,000 citizens living in 14 communities along the eastern Hudson Bay coast, the southern shore of the Hudson Strait and the Ungava coasts.
What’s startling to outsiders is that the region, a land mass the size of France, is without any ground transportation. No paved roads. That means Air Inuit is an essential lifeline, providing scheduled, charter, cargo and emergency transportation for the region, every day of the year.
Collectively owned by the Inuit of Nunavik, the airline, which is not subsidized, has successfully operated for more than 30 years. In that time, it has grown into a company with over 500 employees and a fleet of 26 aircraft. Three more are on the way.
But ownership in this context isn’t about dividends and stock shares. It’s about access to the one thing the modern Inuit people can’t do without: an airline. It’s the only practical way to travel over the huge, unforgiving terrain to promote trade, to sell everything from fish and caribou meat to clothing and crafts, to visit family, to get medical and dental care, to reach hospitals in an emergency, to attend funerals, to participate in cultural programs, and even for youth teams to play hockey with “neighboring” rivals hundreds of miles away.
“We even help transport Eskimo sled dogs from place to place to help increase their genetic pool,” says Berthe. “Air Inuit beneficiaries may not have paper stocks but they are issued two, non-transferrable certificates every year to travel at 75 percent off the ticket price,” Berthe explains. “We also provide 300 tickets annually to the community as a whole,” which can be used for anything — from fundraising to meeting specific family or community needs.
“We know how hard it is to start a business, especially in our remote community,” Berthe adds. “So when an Inuit business is in its incubation period, we offer deep reductions in cargo transportation costs or ticket discounts when it’s important to meet with suppliers and customers who are far away and need face-to-face interaction.”
So who pays full rates? “Everyone else,” says Berthe. “Thirty out of forty customers pay full fare or a negotiated rate for groups.” These customers include government officials, utility workers, physicians and dentists, as well as judges and attorneys, who must travel to meet with their constituents, patients and clients. And of course tourists, who are increasingly interested in the Inuit culture and the ecotourism opportunities.
George Berthe has come a long way from his modest childhood, but his culture remains inside him, and he lives it every day. “Our communities wouldn’t exist without the airline,” he says, a fact that informs every decision he makes.