James Armstrong Richardson – Prairie visionary and father of commercial aviation in Canada

StatueAt the east end of the terminal, on the departures level, there is an impressive statue of an even more impressive man: James Armstrong Richardson. The Winnipeg Richardson International airport has been named in his honour to recognize his crucial contribution to aviation in its early days.

For over 150 years, the Richardson name has been synonymous with industry and business in Canada. As a family-owned and controlled corporation for five generations, James Richardson & Sons, Limited established in 1857 by James Richardson in Kingston, Ont., continues to be a leader in the worlds of agriculture, real estate, financial services and investments.

The firm’s founder James Richardson had a son named George Algernon Richardson, who died in 1906. George was the father of James Armstrong Richardson, who became vice-president of James Richardson & Sons, Limited in 1910 and moved to Winnipeg in 1912. In 1919, James married Muriel Sprague and, the same year, became president and general manager of the firm, which already had significant holdings in the West.

James’ brother George died in the First World War and James, deeply affected, plunged into helping the war effort. This earned him respect and a sterling reputation in Ottawa and the world of the grain industry. He moved the head office of the company from Kingston to Winnipeg in 1923.

The father of Canadian aviation

JARichardsonJames Richardson’s foray into aviation began through a chance meeting with a grounded pilot on a rainy day in August of 1926. Richardson immediately began to recognize how aviation could assist the process of developing northern Canada’s mineral resources. Later that year, he formed Western Canada Airways Limited with Harold A. “Doc” Oaks as manager and pilot, mechanic Al Cheesman and J.A. MacDugall as treasurer. Richardson’s first aircraft, a Fokker Universal, would be called “the City of Winnipeg.”

The fledgling company received a major break when it secured a supply contract from the Canadian government to deliver drilling equipment to engineers working on the northern railway to Churchill on Hudson Bay. Despite harrowing adventures, the aviators hauled eight tons of gear and 14 workmen to Fort Churchill, completing the first large airlift into the North and making Churchill the terminus of the railway and eventually the home of Canada’s most northern deep-water port.

JARichardson2In the autumn of 1928, Western Canada Airways launched an experimental airmail and passenger service between the cities of Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary and Edmonton. The first flight took off on Sept 13 with five passengers, including John Bracken, the Premier of Manitoba.

In 1929, WCA was awarded a contract to transport mail across the prairies. In the same year, Richardson and other partners acquired control of International Airways and

Canadian Transcontinental Airways, eastern Canada’s two largest firms. In 1930, Western Canada Airways became part of a new and larger company, Canadian Airways Limited, with Richardson as president. The company was also establishing new markets in fisheries, forestry and customs patrols. Passenger trade was burgeoning especially across the North.

First national airline

With operations from coast to coast, Canadian Airways became Canada’s first national airline. Although its mail transport contracts were terminated in 1932 due to funding cutbacks associated with the Depression, Canadian Airways carried on. Winnipeg was poised to be Canada’s most important aviation centre with the second largest airport facility on the continent, behind only Chicago.

In 1937, a new Liberal government in Ottawa reversed former commitments to Canadian Airways with the

formation of Trans-Canada Air Lines (TCA), to be operated out of Montreal. The backroom deals that cut Canadian Airways out of the transcontinental routes was said to have broken the heart of James A. Richardson. Canadian Airways, instrumental in creating a transcontinental air system, was sold late in 1941 and quickly merged into the Canadian Pacific Railway-owned Canadian Pacific Airlines.

James A. Richardson died suddenly on June 26, 1939 at age 54. For his many contributions, he was posthumously honoured in Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame as the Father of Commercial Aviation in Canada.

The recognition of the remarkable legacy of the Richardson family was realized once again when it was announced in December 2006 that Winnipeg International Airport would be renamed Winnipeg James Armstrong Richardson International Airport. This same year James A. Richardson and his descendents were honoured with the Manitoba Aviation Council Pioneer of Flight Award.