Merlin Air claims it is moving onward and upward - and geographically that's true as the upstart airline has moved its operations to Bella Bella in Queen Charlotte Sound.
The company, which recently lost out to Blackcomb Helicopters in its bid to purchase a building at the Pemberton Airport that used to belong to Pemberton Helicopters, issued a news release on Aug. 4 stating that the airline has finalized a "pivotal business agreement" with the Heiltsuk Tribal Council, which they call B.C.'s "second largest First Nation," that makes them a "significant investment partner" in the company.
Merlin Air claims that the agreement with the Heiltsuk includes joint restoration of a 10-seat, twin engine Piper Navajo Chieftain Aircraft, Transport Canada Commercial Certification and transfer of ownership of the aircraft to Merlin Air.
The Heiltsuk, Merlin Air spokeswoman Lori Xavier wrote, own the Bella Bella Airport on Campbell Island, which they call a "strategic transportation link" to Vancouver and airports in Port Hardy, Klemtu and Bella Coola.
Later in the news release, Merlin Air CEO Fred Xavier said that his company spent "four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars" trying to invest in infrastructure at the Pemberton Airport and that they "overcame" the Village of Pemberton's attempts to block introduction of commercial passenger services at the airport.
In a separate news release, Lori Xavier slammed Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy for swearing two separate affidavits against the company in a bid to block its purchase of the former Pemberton Helicopters building.
She said Merlin Air spent "well over $100,000" on its involvement in the Pemberton Airport. That included $77,031 for survey, engineering, building drawings, legal and accounting fees, as well as $22,435 in what they called "good faith payments" to the village.
What Xavier didn't mention was that Merlin Air owed the village approximately $5,000, including rent, an airport maintenance charge and survey costs.
She went on to criticize the village for advocating "closed door decision and policy-making," adding that this practice should be a concern for Pembertonians.
Sturdy, reached Tuesday, was largely unfazed by the news releases. He said all business with Merlin Air was done in camera because negotiation issues are supposed to be done behind closed doors.
"It's quite reasonable to be talking about negotiations and legal issues in a closed session," he said.
Sturdy then picked away at the news releases, unconvinced by some of the claims that Merlin Air made. For one, he didn't believe the claim that Merlin has secured an agreement with the "second largest First Nation" in British Columbia.
He could be correct that they're not the second largest. A search of the website for the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation shows the Heiltsuk First Nation numbers 2,192 band members. The Lillooet Tribal Council has 3,972 registered members and the Squamish First Nation has 3,532.
Sturdy also denied claims that the village hindered Merlin's attempts to develop a business at the airport.
"I see no evidence of that whatsoever," he said. "I wish Merlin the best of luck and I don't think I'll really, I'm not going to respond to some of the comments they've made about me in particular, but council and Pemberton's plans or, just, there's not much point responding to some of this stuff. ...I don't even want to talk about it."
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