Thursday 8th December 2016

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Pure fantasy, but…

Maybe there’s a transportation alternative for Ontario’s Ring of Fire

by David Robinson | Reprinted with permission of Northern Ontario Business

Here is a fantasy about northern development and the Ring of Fire. Everyone in the story really exists. Not a single event in the story has happened—yet.

In late 2014, the chief of the Moose Cree First Nation, Norm Hardisty, wrote to Stephen McGlennan, CEO of Hybrid Air Vehicles in Britain, asking if their Airlander 50 would be a suitable vehicle for CreeWest, a First Nations-owned air carrier. Hardisty didn’t have a clear plan in mind, but he knew that if First Nations controlled an essential transportation system they would be big winners in the development of Ontario’s North. McGlennan phoned Hardisty back saying he would fly a half-dozen people to the hangar in London where the radical airship is being built.

Maybe there’s a transportation alternative for Ontario’s Ring of Fire

A simulated image of an Airlander.

According to the International Business Review, McGlennan’s super blimp has a top speed of 160 kilometres per hour, can carry 50 tons of equipment and can operate in the most extreme weather. If there is no runway, it can deliver 20 tons to any clearing bigger than a football field. In comparison, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter can only lift a maximum of 10 tons. And helicopters are fuel hogs. The Airlander has much better fuel efficiency than any conventional aircraft.

Hardisty knew that economical heavy-lift capacity could change the economics of northern development. You could serve mines anywhere, without having to build roads. Saving time and money would make hundreds of small mines economical and reduce their environmental impact. You could pick up a whole community and move it to a better location. Families could take their homes with them when they wanted to move to a new town. The Northern Cree could be nomadic again using 21st century technology.

Hardisty then phoned Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse and asked him to join the expedition and bring his development officer. It was a political masterstroke. Moose Factory is on the coast. It has a rail link to southern Ontario. Webequie is the community closest to the Ring of Fire. Between them they had a strategic location and a strong voice in two different tribal councils.

Hardisty also invited Frank Smeenk, the brilliant CEO of KWG Resources TSXV:KWG. Smeenk decided to pay his own way and bring his vice-president of exploration and development, Moe Lavigne. A glance at the specs for the Airlander put Lavigne’s brain into overdrive. If the technology worked as advertised it would revolutionize his job.

Maybe there’s a transportation alternative for Ontario’s Ring of Fire

Economist David Robinson

It may have been Wabasse who came up with the next brilliant move. He suggested inviting Premier Kathleen Wynne. Wynne is committed to economic development for First Nations and she is the only person who can get the province to consider any idea that comes from outside the box at Queen’s Park. Any bureaucracy filters out wild and unproven ideas, and Ontario has an excellent bureaucracy. Wynne actually seems to have some imagination.

Wynne accepted. She saw right away that a cheap heavy-lifter could improve food supply, housing, education and health care for more than 30 small northern communities without spending billions on roads. Just being able to deliver fresh vegetables and milk cheaply would save lives. She saw the possibility of a unique northern tourism industry with almost no environmental impact. And she saw the possibility of a new Canadian industry based in Ontario building fuel-efficient hybrid airships for the next generation of air travel.

At $100 million, the Airlander 50 is not cheap. That is the price of five kilometres of regional road in Vaughan or one Boeing 757. On the other hand, Mike Lazaridis alone has given the University of Waterloo more than enough to buy an Airlander 50.

In the end, Hardisty’s crew came home with a deal that changed the North. The province of Ontario invested $20 million and got Hybrid Air Vehicles to set up its North American operation in North Bay. Wasaya Airways, already 100% First Nations-owned, took a share of the new airline and put in an order for a second Airlander 50. Smeenk bought a small share for KWG. Wasaya Airlines added airship training to the pilot school they run with Confederation College making Confederation the go-to school for training on hybrid aircraft. And Ontario stepped into the 21st century.

Of course, it is all a fantasy.

David Robinson is an economist at Laurentian University. drobinson@laurentian.ca.

Reprinted with permission of Northern Ontario Business


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