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Movement takes off to re-name EIA after Max Ward

Supporters await decision on petition to rename Edmonton International Airport after Alberta aviation pioneer Max Ward.

It’s customary to speak in glowing terms following someone’s death, whether the words ring true or not.

But for aviation pioneer and entrepreneur Max Ward, who died at the age of 98 last November, the outpouring of tributes and heartfelt condolences has been nothing short of exceptional. 

Perhaps the greatest tribute has come in the form of a national movement to re-name the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) after him. It’s no small effort considering Canadian airports usually get named after politicians, not aviation pioneers.

Leading the effort is project chair Bill Powell, who was just 13 when he took his first Wardair flight. Something about the experience ignited a lifelong passion for aviation. 

“I can tell you the aircraft I was on,” he said in an interview with Western Aviation News. “I was on C-GXRA. I sat in 1K. And I had two windows at the front of the cabin. I remember absolutely everything about it.”

Powell wrote a letter to Max Ward about the service and the crew and Ward wrote back. The letter, the first of many he received from Ward over the years, came with a Wardair pin that Powell still has. 

When Ward died, Powell said he knew he had to do something to honour Ward's life. He pictured the airport in Edmonton and thought: “Wouldn’t it be great naming the airport after him?”

Two petitions have been submitted to government; the largest tabled in the senate in March by Alberta Senator Paula Simons, containing 12,713 signatures. The second was presented to the House of Commons by Edmonton--Wetaskiwin Member of Parliament Mike Lake with 2,094 signatures, 945 from Alberta.

Achievements in the air industry

Born in Edmonton in 1921, Ward began his aviation career with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), receiving his wings in 1941 and later training pilots under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. After the war, he established a small charter company in Yellowknife providing shipping services while mapping much of the Northwest Territories.

One of Ward's many achievements came in 1967 when he made the first landing of an aircraft on wheels at the geographic North Pole. 

In 1953 he established Wardair in Yellowknife and steadily expanded the fleet of aircraft. After moving operations to Edmonton and later Toronto, Wardair was on its way to become one of Canada’s largest scheduled carriers--nationally and internationally--with a fleet of Boeing 747s, McDonnell Douglas DC-10s and Airbus A-310s when Ward sold the company to Canadian Airlines in 1989. 

A long legacy with former employees

As it has been more than three decades since Wardair was sold, it remains remarkable passengers and former employees continue to hold deep emotional connections with Max Ward and his airline. 

“We didn't work for a company; we worked for Mr. Ward,” said Romaine Fleck, who started working in passenger services for Wardair in 1985. “When one was lucky enough to be hired it was like being on cloud nine. Everyone knew the reputation.”

“It was more than a job to most employees. It was part of our identity, and that meant making Mr. Ward proud every single shift. We were not unionized, were paid quite poorly and worked shifts that were difficult, but we did not care."

Former employee Caroline Leaper of Toronto said Ward was an amazing employer.

“Everyone bought into his goals and rules and followed through with them. If you didn’t like them then you didn’t work there. Everyone wanted to work there!” she said. “Leaders like him don’t exist anymore.”

Sherwood Park’s Maureen Burgess’ late husband Ken was one of the longest-serving Wardair employees, working in aircraft maintenance in Yellowknife and Edmonton. After signing the petition, Burgess said Ward was a one-of-a-kind man who fought hard to save his company. 

“My husband admired Max in every aspect, not only for his dedication to the company, but also to his employees," she said.

Even Irene Steinke of Leduc supports changing the airport's name.  Her father’s farm was sold to the federal government in 1954 to make way for the then new EIA and though losing the farm was bittersweet, she holds fond memories of Max Ward.

“He is a prime example of a true Albertan--hardworking, smart, and just a wonderful man.”

And Vancouver's Robert Barren was first a passenger, then an employee. "Flying aboard a Wardair jet made me fall in love with civil aviation and ultimately led me to become a flight attendant,” he said. 

Wide-ranging support to rename EIA

Support is coming from all directions, including Flair Airlines CEO Stephen Jones, industry leaders Don Wheaton and Margaret Southern, NWT premier Caroline Cochrane and former PC federal cabinet minister Elmer MacKay, and thousands of average Canadians. 

The Ward family is also on board, including daughter Gai Ward who said her father was a respectful, humble man. Grandson Jordan Wilkie, leader of the Alberta Green Party, is likewise working to keep the petition alive. 

Powell and supporters have their eye on May 5, the deadline for the federal government to respond to the initiative. Ultimately though, the decision to rename the airport rests with the Edmonton Regional Airports Authority.