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Northern Ontario’s Wasaya Airways: lifeline first, airline second

Wasaya means “rising sun” in the Oji-Cree dialect. It is the inspiration for the airline’s sunburst logo and metaphor for the company’s central role in the seasonal rhythms of the communities it serves. 

This long-standing Indigenous-owned airline with a modern fleet, provides passenger and cargo transport services in Northwestern Ontario.  

Ground transportation to many northern communities is available only for a few months of the year, via ice roads over frozen lakes—and this window is shrinking as the climate warms; for the rest of the year, air transportation is the only option. 

With over 32 years’ experience as a full-service airline and owned by 12 First Nations north of Sioux Lookout, Wasaya is the main provider of all the essentials of life to numerous small Indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario: food, clothing, building supplies, fuel. It also serves as the area’s personal transportation network, operating a regular passenger service throughout the year. 

Flying higher 

The importance of Wasaya Airways to the region has been underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was Wasaya who delivered vaccines to the remote communities of northern Ontario when they first became available. It is a point of pride for the airline that during the pandemic it remained profitable, in contrast to many large airlines elsewhere in the world. 

Another source of pride is the company’s growing operational strength. Recognizing that it needed to expand services and boost managerial capabilities, Wasaya partnered with Exchange Income Corporation, a seasoned veteran of the air transport sector who runs several other airlines of comparable scope. 

BMO structured the financing for the deal, which allowed Wasaya to hold its own equity, working together with all 12 First Nations ownership communities to ensure a smooth transition to the next stage of the airline’s growth. 

“It makes operating a business easier when you have great partners like BMO, who understand the importance of what we do and who we serve,” said Wasaya Airways CEO James Ward. “Wasaya Airways is more than just an airline; we are a lifeline to communities. Everyone wins when we are all on the same page.” 

With additional aircraft and more employees, Wasaya now has an even brighter future. Employment opportunities have increased, and the company continues to build economic autonomy and resilience. 

About BMO Indigenous Banking Unit 

BMO is a leader in driving financial progress, equity and eliminating barriers to inclusion in partnership with Indigenous Peoples across North America. We are committed to investing in Indigenous businesses, communities, and colleagues to build a path for growth and prosperity to advance reconciliation and self-determination for all Indigenous Peoples.  

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