'I earned it, so I don't feel bad.'

First Air directors pay themselves hefty bonuses


First Air board member George Berthe has disclosed that he received a $250,000 bonus from the airline this past summer, far less than the $1 million figure mentioned in some rumours circulating around Kuujjuaq.

Berthe, the corporate secretary of Makivik Corp., which owns First Air, appeared on Kuujjuaq's community radio station Sept. 24 to address rumours about the bonus he and other First Air board members received.

"There's no lynch mob out there, but I want to come clear, because the figures were wrong," Berthe told Nunatsiaq News later that day.

Berthe, a licenced pilot, explained that he was credited with $25,000 per year as a prorated compensation for the 10 years that he's served on the First Air board.

"It's a lot of money. It really is a lot of money," he said by telephone from Kuujjuaq. "I earned it, so I don't feel bad about earning money. I haven't stolen a single dollar."

Depressed over his personal life and stories that he became a rich man overnight, Berthe, known for his sense of humor and big heart, said he wanted Kuujjuammiut to hear his side of the story directly.

Berthe, 35, who has two years left to serve in his fourth term on Makivik's executive, said he went on the radio himself to keep the respect of his fellow citizens.

"I have to live in this community. It's a beautiful community," he said. "I was born and raised here."

The bonus was part of his employment terms as a member of the Makivik executive and First Air board, Berthe said.

But he said the bonus, perks and salary don't even begin to make up for the stress and broken relationships that go hand-in-hand with the travel-filled life of executive members, he said.

Berthe defended Makivik's record of providing the most per capita support to beneficiaries among the Inuit regions and for being an organization that is "as open as we can be."

Berthe's emotional address over the radio was followed later the same day by words from Makivik president Pita Aatami.

Bonus payments made to First Air board members this year total about $1.5 million, with $600,000 going to Aatami, a source inside Makivik told Nunatsiaq News in a taped interview.

Aatami, first elected as president in 1998, also serves as the chair of First Air's board of directors.

Each member of Makivik's 16-member board, who approved the resolution calling for the bonuses, also received a $5,000 payment, in addition to their $40,000 annual stipend.

Aatami refused a request for an interview.

"I am discussing this with the Inuit of Nunavik not with Nunatsiaq News," Aatami said in a Sept. 24 email communication.

Some beneficiaries questioned the timing of the payouts, a period when First Air ticket and cargo prices have risen steadily. The money, they suggest, could have been used to lower transportation costs for the public.

Quebec has already granted $12.1 million over three years to reduce transportation costs for Nunavimmiut.

Part of this money covers a $600,000 airfare reduction program, which subsidizes half the cost of a ticket on First Air or Air Inuit, up to a total of $1,500 per year to residents of Nunavik and beneficiaries living outside the region, for airline tickets for travel within Nunavik.

The First Air bonuses come at the same time as First Air tries to trim routes and boost revenues.

The airline recently dropped its jet service from Rankin Inlet to Winnipeg and added a $10 fuel surcharge to each ticket sold, a fee which some in Kuujjuaq joked should be called a "bonus" surcharge.

According to information contained in a Dun and Bradstreet business overview of Bradley Air Services that is available on the internet, Bradley, whose trade name is First Air, takes in annual revenues of about $230 million.

The Dun and Bradstreet report does not say if First Air makes an annual profit. Makivik's annual reports do not reveal its subsidiary company's profits or losses.

The overview says the First Air's board of directors includes Aatami; First Air chief financial officer Jan Traversy; Makivik employee Eileen Klinkig,; Dawson Tilley, a former CFL player; George Berthe, Makivik treasurer Anthony Ittoshat; former Kativik Regional Government chair Johnny Adams; and Michael Gordon, who serves a Makivik vice-president.

The overview says Bob Davis, who departed from his long-time position as First Air president this past summer, also sits on the airline's board, but Davis's seat has likely been filled by Scott Bateman, who took over from Davis.

Davis' departure had nothing to do with bonus payments, Berthe said.

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