Kuujjuaq pilot Johnny May has thrown candy from his plane at Christmas for 55 years, until now

The flying Saint of Kuujjuaq, brother of Governor General Mary May Simon, is descending to earth. Or so he says.

Nunavummiut awaits the sweets delivered to Kuujjuaq in May (Isabelle Dubois)

Nunavummiut awaits the sweets delivered to Kuujjuaq in May (Isabelle Dubois)

In the northeastern tip of Quebec, in a community upriver from Ungava Bay, generations of villagers have known of a second man who flies with gifts every Christmas. Everyone in this place, young and old, believes in Johnny May.

Lean, bespectacled, and quite perky, May has a habit of waking up early on December 25 to prepare her beloved De Havilland Turbo Otter DHC-3 for a special mission. If the weather is clear, the bush pilot takes off and flies unusually low over a field in his native Kuujjuaq, where crowds from Nunavummiut watch and wait below. The back hatch opens and May’s helper elves throw candy and other gifts into the snow for kids and adults alike to grab.

May’s candy toss was an annual tradition from 1965 to 2019, and she’s still flying, while her hands, eyesight, and wits remain in cabin-ready medical condition.

But last year’s event was based on the same reason that almost everything fun and wonderful was in 2020: the pandemic. And this year, at age 76, she voluntarily decided to spend December 25 on Mainland. After 55 years, the man behind Great Northern Candy Drop wants a free Christmas, just like the rest of us.

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Federal bureaucrats had tried unsuccessfully to curtail his vacation abandonment over alleged security concerns. And May had tried to break the tradition, saying in both 2015 and 2016 that she was doing her last, only to fly again due to popular demand.

Johnny May's last straw in 2019 (Isabelle Dubois)

Last drop of May in 2019 (Isabelle Dubois)

But this time it sounds serious. Although he still flies several times a week to nearby hunting and fishing areas and mines, he says from his home in Kuujjuaq that last December “was the first Christmas in which I relaxed a lot, knowing that I would not have to fly or check time. a couple of days before to see if it would be okay. “

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May was born in 1945, one of eight children to Bob May, a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post manager, and Nancy Angnatuk, an Inuk woman, at a time when HBC discouraged postal managers from marrying Inuit. On a trip to his father’s fishing camp, a pilot invited young Johnny into the cockpit and let him handle the controls. He was hooked and ended up taking lessons in Pennsylvania, where the local press photographed him and labeled him, with the blunt racism of the time, “the flying Eskimo.” In 1962, he became the first Inuk pilot in eastern Canada.

As a bush pilot, he transported supplies, hunters and medical patients throughout the Nunavik region. The Christmas flight was inspired by something from his own youth, when Hudson Bay staff stood atop large buildings and threw candy canes and other sweets. May thought she could do a better one.

Beginning in 1965, he would equip a friend or two with safety harnesses on the back of his single-engine plane, named Pengo Pally, an Inuktitut meaning “I miss you,” a message to his wife. Approaching the crowd of candy lovers, he would get off the plane and yell when it was time to open the hatch and drop the merchandise. “Usually I’m yelling like crazy for the guys in the back,” he recalls. “After the candy drop, my voice is a little hoarse.” A hearty turkey dinner and a party with friends would soothe your throat and your spirits.

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May initially threw candy onto the streets of Kuujjuaq, now a village of 2,750 people, but gradually moved the Christmas drop onto a road and field next to the airport. The village’s Pinguatitsijingiit Recreation Committee helped improve the flight’s payload, and in recent years, sweets are only a tenth of what their plane has dropped. The rest has been clothing and gifts, including bigger prizes like a television. (No, it doesn’t drop a TV from a few hundred feet; it’s a large envelope containing a certificate.)

May kept up the tradition until she was nearly thwarted in 2004. That’s when, she suspects, a nosy federal bureaucrat read an online account of Kuujjuaq’s candy sales. That spring, he received a warning that Canadian aviation laws prohibit planes from flying low over crowds, and was told he could face a fine of up to $ 1,000. After a bit of back and forth with Transport Canada and the locals, May says, the mayor offered to pay the fines. Transport Canada relented. “They didn’t want to be the bad guys in the public eye,” he says.

The department began granting May an annual exemption by giving her special permission to break aviation rules once between December 23 and January 2 (bad weather forced him to postpone the flight several times). The tradition continued, inspiring a children’s book, which became a 2017 CBC Christmas cartoon, The Great Drop of Sweets from the North.

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In 2020, when a mass gathering in a Kuujjuaq camp was banned, two of May’s aides devised a different method of delivering candy. They put cardboard wings on a van, wrote “Pengo Pally” on the side, and even added a little airplane tail on the back with the otter’s call sign, C-GMAY. The couple threw candy out the truck window at the excited children. May enjoyed listening to the children and seeing their smiles.

Can the children of Kuujjuaq persuade him one more time to apply for an emergency waiver from Transport Canada? Anything is possible, but May has already said that he is willing to throw another candy from the truck. And it’s not just that he feels his age. This Christmas, the veteran pilot is content to let his younger sister, Mary May Simon, take a big Christmas leap, delivering greetings to all of Canada in her first winter as Governor General.

This article appears in print in the December 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the title “Good to the last drop of gum”. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.


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