THE northwestern Ontario community of Sioux Lookout lost one of its biggest boosters and leading businessmen on the weekend with the unexpected death of longtime Bearskin Airlines president Harvey Friesen.
Friesen died while on vacation in Palm Springs, Calif. He was 65.
His death came just one month after he and his brother, Cliff, who had helped him build Bearskin from a small, northern float-plane operation into one of the country’s most successful regional commuter airlines, had retired from their executive positions with the company.
Although the brothers sold the airline to Winnipeg’s Exchange Income Corp. in late 2010 for $32.5 million, they and their management team continued to run it on behalf of Exchange Income until the end of last December.
Although Harvey Friesen was best known as the co-owner and president of Bearskin, his business and community activities in northwestern Ontario went far beyond that.
Hotel owner, residential developer, community sports leader, philanthropist and fundraiser extraordinaire were some of the other hats he wore during his 30-plus years in the community, Sioux Lookout Mayor Dennis Leney said Monday.
"There is nobody in this town that wasn’t touched by what Harvey has done in all the time he’s been here," Leney said, noting Friesen played a leading role in the local fundraising efforts that led to the construction three years ago of the community’s new $140-million, 60-bed hospital — the Meno Ya Win Health Centre.
Friesen was also a strong supporter of local sports teams and the local curling club, Leney said.
And he and Cliff were active supporters of Hope Air, the national charity dedicated to arranging free air transportation for Canadians who are in financial need and require medical care outside their community.
"Thousands have flown on Bearskin for nothing. You couldn’t count them all."
The mayor and Exchange Income Corp. president and CEO Mike Pyle said Friesen’s death from an apparent heart attack came as a total surprise.
"I’ve never known him to have health problems," Leney said. "He was a very active man."
Pyle described Friesen as "very much a big part of the small-airline business. He sat on various industry associations and those kinds of things."
A native of Warman, Sask., Friesen joined Bearskin as a pilot in 1970, bought a 50 per cent share in the company two years later and became majority owner and president in 1977 — the same year Bearskin added its first scheduled route.
Cliff became a part owner and company executive vice-president the following year, and the two began expanding their air service west into Manitoba and as far east as Ottawa. At its peak in 2003, the airline had more than 430 employees and operated over 200 flights daily to more than 40 destinations in the two provinces.