It’s not every day you become the first Indigenous woman to own an airline in Canada.
“Even today it’s hard to imagine that I am launching an airline,” said Teara Fraser, who grew up in a remote community in northern Alberta and plans to fly her airline to hard-to-reach Indigenous communities.
On Friday, Fraser announced the start of Iskwew Air, based at Vancouver International Airport, which she says will start flights next March.
Fraser, 47, is Métis from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., and raised her two adult children in Metro Vancouver.
A pilot for 15 years, she previously flew for Hawkair, a Terrace-based regional airline, flying to towns such as Masset and Prince Rupert. She’s also owned her own businesses, including Kîsik Aerial Survey.
The name, Iskwew, is a Cree word for woman, and Fraser wants it to to eventually be known for its Indigenous food and philosophies.
Humble start with big vision
For now, Fraser has just one cabin-class, twin-engine aircraft, but she envisions a full fleet that will specifically provide charter services.
The plane received a blessing Friday from the elders from Musqueam, whose territory the Vancouver International airport is on.
“When I close my eyes I see flight attendants, a busy ramp, I see connecting people to the land,” Fraser said.
Her idea to build an Indigenous airline from scratch came during the 2010 winter Olympics when tourists from all over the world came to Vancouver.
Many wanted a first-hand look at First Nations communities in B.C.
“There was a vision to connect those international travellers to Indigenous communities and showcase B.C.’s First Nations,” she said.
But there were few airlines with the capability to travel to remote communities.
“When they identified a barrier, I thought that was a way I could support Indigenous tourism,” she added.
Boost to women in aviation
Heather Bell, chair of the British Columbia Aviation Council, has been in the industry for 35 years and said it’s nice to see a female entering the male-dominated field.
“It’s great to see an Indigenous woman making this kind of statement, it’s fabulous and I’m very excited,” said Bell.
Research conducted by the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association and the Canadian Aviation Historical Society indicate that there has never been an airline owned by an Indigenous woman.
“There are woman that have been in high levels in the aviation industry, but even that is very rare,” Bell said.
Remote communities to be focus of airline
Fraser wants to break barriers that have kept women and Indigenous people away from aviation, but she said there is is shortage of pilots, especially those willing to fly to small, remote areas.
“We are facing a global, national and local pilot shortage that is worsening and I am worried about those fly-in communities,” she said.
“I worry that those services wont be available to remote communities that depend on services for basic needs,” she added.
Fraser was born in Hay River, N.W.T. and her Métis family comes from Fort Chipewyan, Alta., a fly-in only community.
“We have just a winter road and the only way to get there is by boat or by plane,” said Jumbo Fraser, Teara’s uncle who came from Fort Chipewyan to witness the blessing.
Teara’s daughter, Kiana Alexander, an Iskwew team leader, said she’s most excited about the Indigenous focus of the airline.
“Reclaiming language and matriarchal ways of being in a non-traditional field like aviation is powerful,” Alexander said.
The plane will be ready to provide charter services out of the South Terminal at Vancouver Airport on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2019.
“It’s time,” said Fraser.
“Time to show the world what is possible.”
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