Facing an uncertain future, Adlair puts up brave front
"You can’t unring a bell, you can’t cast blame, you just do your best"
CAMBRIDGE BAY— The clock is ticking for Cambridge Bay’s Adlair Aviation Ltd. but, as René Laserich drives to the Cambridge Bay airport, you’d never know it.
There’s one week to go before Oct. 11.
That’s when Adlair is likely to learn about the fate of its appeal with the Nunavummi Nangminiqaqtunik Ikajuuti office against a Government of Nunavut decision to give the Kitikmeot medevac contract to another airline.
The NNI Contracting Appeals Board first met Sept. 12 to hear the case, then adjourned to Sept. 26, and is now set to reconvene the hearing Oct. 11.
Laserich, Adlair’s operations manager, admits to “a lot of feelings” these days.
But exactly what those feelings are takes the Cambridge Bay-raised pilot some time to describe.
Meanwhile, sitting in his pick-up truck on the tarmac near the airline’s hangars and puffing occasionally on a cigarette held outside the window, Laserich, now 51, tells a story about one of his first memories from 1966, when he arrived in Cambridge Bay, then a settlement of about 200.
“We came up in the winter time, and I was on my way home from school. I got lost in a blizzard, and these two little girls took me into their home. Their mother was there, and she warmed my feet up, and gave me some tea,” Laserich recalls. “Once I was warm enough, the two girls took me home, maybe only a couple of doors down, and they saw I had only a jacket from down south and boots from down south, so two weeks later Mrs. Evalik came to the door and she had kamiks and a home-sewn parka for me. It shows you how the people were. I’ll remember that until the day I die.”
Laserich attended elementary school in Cambridge Bay, before heading off to finish high school in Yellowknife.
And throughout his childhood, Laserich flew around the Kitikmeot with his father, the late bush pilot Willy Laserich, now a member of Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame. The elder Laserich was a daring pilot who plucked hunters from blizzards and saw half a dozen babies born in the air during his 5,000 medevac flights.
Adlair remains “Willy’s” company, and people still say today “I was medevaced on Willy’s plane,” his son said.
“Willy’s been dead for four years,” Laserich said. “But we understand that.”
If Adlair’s facing tough times now, Willy Laserich also butted heads more than 30 years ago with federal aviation officials over his right to fly in the North.
In 1982, Judge Frank Smith finally dropped numerous aviation-related charges against Laserich and found him guilty on only one count — of running an illegal charter service, saying “he’s the stuff of the bush pilots of old… supplying a service that he is uniquely qualified to perform.”
Adlair, founded the following year, then held the medevac contract for the Kitikmeot for more than 20 years, and, until five years ago, without an official contract.
But since this past August, when the GN decided to award the medevac contact to a joint venture formed between Aqsaqniq Air and Air Tindi, and Adlair then filed its appeal, the airline has been operating on a month-to-month renewal of its contract.
That’s up again at the end of this month.
And there’s nothing reassuring about that.
But base workers Willie Oakoak and Gordon Greene, who could lose their jobs at the end of October, like the other 10 or so Adlair workers in Cambridge Bay, stay focused on the job: this week they’re organizing their shop for the dark, cold winter, when you don’t want to search for what you need.
As Laserich says: “you can’t unring a bell, you can’t cast blame, you just do your best.”
On a day packed with medevacs, that means sprinting up to Gjoa Haven in Adlair’s 25b Lear jet and down to Yellowknife in about two and a half hours, or flying in one of the company’s King Airs to make the two-hour trip from Cambridge Bay to Yellowknife.
Over the years, Laserich estimates that thousands of people in the Kitikmeot have flown Adlair’s aiplanes, which they have named after local people, such as the late Helen Maksagak, the first Commissioner of Nunavut, or the Hudson Bay Co. legend, the late Ernie Lyall, a close friend of Willy Laserich.
Lyall’s son, Dennis Lyall, is now the president of Aqsarniq Air, Adlair’s rival for the medevac contract.
“Ernie and my father would be turning over in their grave,” is all Laserich will say about that.
Laserich has many links to families in the Kitikmeot region through his adopted sister, Bessie Tologanak Beasley.
“It’s our home,” he said. “I am a product of Cambridge Bay.”
Raised without television, Laserich said he “can’t recall that I’ve ever been bored.”
“It’s a tight-knit community — you get support from everyone,” he said.
Over the years, Adlair has hired “hundreds” of people from Cambridge Bay where now Laserich’s brother Paul, niece Jessie and son Bryan all work for the company.
The matriarch of the family, Margaret Rose, died last month, although her funeral has not yet been held.
As for those feelings about the possibility that Adlair — the company that his father and other family members built up — maybe facing its end, Laserich searches for the right word, saying a childhood spent in an Innuinaqtun-speaking environment sometimes leaves him floundering over the right term to use in English.
He says he’s not angry, not disappointed, and not worried.
“I am concerned about the health and the good will of the people. It’s concern — that’s what it is.”
Over the course of 40-plus years of flying around the Kitikmeot, the Laserichs have learned to do medevacs in extreme conditions, by drawing on all the resources available to, for example, bring someone off the land, he said.
Now Laserich said he’s concerned that another airline with less medevac experience may simply “grab a patient and take him to the hospital.”
Doing medevacs in this region of the Arctic is not an easy job.
“If it was easy, everyone would be up here.”
And looking ahead to the future, Laserich said he’s holding on “to faith in the people and the politicians, because they know what’s good for the people.”