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Amik Aviation owner Oliver Owen at the St. Andrews Airport with one of his aircraft. 

Airline owner had pilot's licence
before a driver's licence

Funding agency helped entrepreneur when banks wouldn't

Oliver Owen is an independent aboriginal entrepreneur, a still-rare segment in society. How did he do it? It wasn’t with help from banks.

Owen always dreamed of being a pilot. He worked at a lodge near Little Grand Rapids where he was born and raised, and saved $1,200 to get to Winnipeg when he was 20. He bused to St. Andrews Airport to take flying lessons from Winnipeg Aviation. The bus dropped him off at the junction of highways 8 and 27, and he’d walk the last couple of kilometres over the wind-swept plain. A man named Claus would give him rides whenever he saw him. Claus now works for Owen.

Owen swept floors and cleaned planes at another small air service to help pay for his lessons. He had his private pilot’s licence before he had a driver’s licence.

Fast-forward
Owen worked for two small northern airlines, got elected chief at Little Grand Rapids and started a one-plane air service with his brother called Sowind Air in 1991 — with his own money. Owen dissolved Sowind in the early 2000s to avoid a takeover. He started again in 2008 with his current company, Amik Aviation. Like earlier attempts, he couldn’t get  a bank loan. "The bank thinks if you’re aboriginal, it’s not going to work," he said.

He credits loans from funding agencies such as: the Communities Economic Development Fund in Thompson, the First Peoples Economic Growth Fund, and the Tribal Wi-Chi-Way-Win Capital Corporation for helping him get back into business.

The eight-year-old growth fund has invested $28 million to leverage $70 million for 168 First Nation companies. Up to $200,000 of loans, funded by the province, can be obtained interest-free, but after that borrowers pay higher interest charges than with banks.

Said senior loans officer, Tom Thordarson, of Owen: "He’s one of our star clients."

'You just have to put your mind to it.’

Today, Owen owns a Cessna Grand Caravan, bought used for $1.3 million, and a $1.7-million Amphibian Caravan. Both seat nine passengers. He also owns a small aircraft.

Amik, which means "beaver" in Saulteaux, only flies once daily in winter when winter roads cut into business.

Owen has been a businessman for 25 years now. Several of his children work for him, and grandkids come in at night to clean the planes, as he did when younger.

"I always spend time at Little Grand. They know me. I try to encourage young people. ‘Go to school,’ I tell them. ‘You can do everything you want. You just have to put your mind to it. ' "

Story from Winnipeg Free Press

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