When Gene Bernier became president of the Chapleau Chamber of Commerce in 1963, he had one major thought in mind -- the construction of an airstrip for Chapleau.
|Ralph Stewart, Gene, Dr McIlveen, MJM|
Closely associated with Gene from the outset was Yvon Martel, and together they launched a seven-year campaign to obtain support for the project, and by May, 1970, the airstrip had become a reality when Stan Deluce, of Chapleau, president of of White River Air Service officially landed the first plane on the airstrip with Yvon as his passenger. Gene headed the welcoming committee.
As I was researching the airport story, I could not help but think of Tom Godfrey Sr, of a previous generation of Chapleau community builders, all volunteers, whose great passion was to have Highway 129 to Thessalon completed, and "turkey trail" through the bush it may have been when opened in 1949, the community had a highway link to break down the barriers of isolation.
Gene, Yvon and the others who joined them in the airport project were of a generation who saw that air travel was becoming more common by the 1960s and they were determined that Chapleau would not be left behind.
The chamber of commerce backed Gene's "thought" about the airstrip, and an airport committee was formed. It had its own bank account and Gene was the chairman. In no way, was the project officially supported by the Township of Chapleau council. In fact, over the next seven years there would be some misunderstandings between the two, but they were resolved by May 1970 when the council agreed to let them use township land, but would not provide any grants for the project.
In short, Chapleau got an airport because of the dedication of volunteers from businesses, industries and individuals who supported it.
For example, Gene and Yvon made innumerable trips at their own expense to meet with federal and provincial government officials in Ottawa and Toronto.
And, when construction began, Yvon, became the "foreman" according to a report Gene gave to the Chapleau Rotary Club, adding he was of "tremendous value" to the success of the project. Although they received some funding from senior governments, they also relied on donations of funds and equipment locally.
These airport pioneers were not content to just create a gravel strip runway, but were busy negotiating with the provincial government to establish a forest fire water bombing base at it, which eventually contributed to expansion.
By 1973, it had become the Chapleau Municipal Airport and the council had established the Chapleau Airport Commission. The first members were Gene as chair, with Yvon and Jack Russell as members, and a representative of council. When I became Chapleau reeve in 1974 I represented council on the airport commission.
But, it was the government of Premier Bill Davis who gave the airport a great boost when it established NorOntair in 1971. The airline was established to create east-west links across Northern Ontario. Premier Davis landed at the airport on a visit to Chapleau in 1975, where he toured the construction site of the Chapleau General Hospital and reviewed plans for other projects planned by council.
|First NorOntair flight Timmins-Chapleau|
In July 1975, the terminal building was officially opened. It coincided with a visit to Chapleau by an American marching band which was enlisted to play for the ceremonies.
|Chapleau reeve Michael leaving 1st NorOntair flight|
In October 1979, a ceremony was held to officially open two paved runways, and Gene retired as chairman to be succeeded by Yvon Martel.
Chapleau had airline passenger service until 1996 when the government of Premier Mike Harris stopped subsidies to NorOntair.
In recognition of his tremendous contribution to the airport, it is now called after the person who had a thought in 1963, and made it into a reality -- the Eugene Bernier Airport. My email is email@example.com
Thanks to DOUG GREIG for his research assistance.