Bearskin Pilots
One of Bearskin’s Fairchild Metroliners parked in a hangar at the Region of Waterloo International Airport. Photo: F/O Morgan Hayes (Jazz Aviation)

Like many carriers in Canada, Bearskin Airlines continues to recover from the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re doing a good job getting back to normal,” said Capt. Rob Maxwell, the pilot group’s Master Executive Council (MEC) chair, adding that the airline’s operational level is currently “at or above 75 percent of our pre-COVID levels.”

Maxwell remarked that while the fleet size and pilot count haven’t changed significantly in the past year, the carrier has expanded its operation. Bearskin introduced new service including a route between Geraldton and Thunder Bay, Ont., which began Nov. 1, 2022. Geraldton is the site of Equinox Gold’s $1.23 billion Greenstone Gold Mine project, which will undoubtedly generate more traffic. Plus, the airline resumed service to locations like Fort Frances, Dryden, and Kenora, Ont.

Bearskin also recently opened a third pilot base in North Bay, Ont., hoping to further expand its operation as well as attract pilot candidates from that part of the province. While this is good news for the airline and its employees, Bearskin pilots remain mired in prolonged contract negotiations. The group has been bargaining for a joint collective agreement, together with the pilots of Perimeter Aviation, since early 2020. Just two years before, Bearskin merged with Perimeter, becoming a subsidiary of the airline.

Maxwell, who’s served as MEC chair since 2021, expressed concerns that the outdated terms and pay rates of the pilot group’s existing contract discourage potential pilot candidates. The pace of negotiations has been slow, and Bearskin has witnessed significant attrition in its pilot ranks as many aviators have left for airlines that offer larger aircraft and better compensation. Consequently, pilot hiring is a top priority for Bearskin.

Still, Maxwell remains hopeful that the parties will reach an agreement soon. “We’re making small steps but not as big as we’d like to see,” he said, noting, “We’re trying to stay optimistic, but it’s difficult when your parent company, Exchange Income Corporation [EIC], boasts of record-breaking quarters to its shareholders. EIC’s financial recovery from COVID has been swift, with 2021 revenues up 30 percent over those of 2019.”

Maxwell observed that, in many respects, the Bearskin/Perimeter merger has been similar in nature to the one conducted between Canadian North and First Air in 2018. “When the process is complete, we’ll likely be one MEC, comprised of two local executive councils, operating under one collective agreement,” he remarked. The two pilot groups are currently operating under separate agreements, with the Perimeter contract having been negotiated by a previous union.

Despite endless sessions at the bargaining table, the Bearskin MEC maintains a good relationship with management. “I can sit down and talk with my chief pilot or ops manager at any time if things need resolving,” Maxwell stated, observing that he’s on good terms with the entire Flight Operations Department.

Bearskin was acquired by EIC in 2011 and is one of six carriers with ALPA-represented pilots partially or fully owned by the Winnipeg, Man.-based holding company. The other airlines include Calm Air, PAL Airlines/Air Borealis, PAL Aerospace, Perimeter Aviation, and Wasaya Airways.

Recognizing the potential for an alliance, pilot representatives from each of these groups met during a special session of ALPA’s 49th regular Board of Directors meeting last October to network and share information.

“Our members will always remain professional and committed to the success of our respective airlines, holding true to the ALPA Code of Ethics,” said Maxwell, acknowledging the importance of this gathering. During the session, pilot representatives from the six carriers announced plans to continue meeting to stay better informed about what’s happening with their EIC peers.

Founded in 1963, Bearskin Airlines offers scheduled passenger, general cargo, and charter services, as well as airlift for Hope Air. This charitable organization coordinates free nonemergency medical transportation for those in financial need, particularly individuals from remote communities.