'It's time,' says 1st Indigenous woman in Canada to start an airline on her own

It's not every day that an Indigenous woman starts an airline from scratch, in Canada. But Teara Fraser, an experienced pilot who was born in a remote community in northern Alberta has started a new airline she hopes will improve air services to hard-to-reach Indigenous communities.

Teara Fraser, who is Métis from a remote community, says airline will travel to hard-to-reach areas

Teara Fraser stands with her plane outside the hanger at the South Terminal of YVR in Richmond. (Angela Sterritt)

It's not every day you become the first Indigenous woman in Canada to start an airline from scratch, all on your own.

"Even today it's hard to imagine that I am launching an airline," said Teara Fraser, who was born in remote Hay River in the Northwest Territories and plans to fly her airline to hard-to-reach Indigenous communities.

Fraser is not the first Indigenous woman in Canada to own an airline. Laverna Martel-Harvey, also from Hay River, N.W.T purchased the then 38-year old Wolverine Air, in 2010. She is also now the part-owner of South Nahanni Airways and Wolverine Air Ltd. 

"I've got to give it her all, [starting an airline from scratch] is a big process and it's a costly process," Martel-Harvey said. "I am pretty proud, she is an Indigenous lady from the territories, and if we can do it, anyone can," she added

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 whose family is from Fort Chipewyan, Alta. She 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 focus.

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 elders from Musqueam, whose territory the Vancouver International airport is on.

Teara Fraser inspecting the first plane of Iskwew Air in what she hopes will be a large fleet in the future. (CBC)

"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.

Heather Bell (far left), chair of the British Columbia Aviation Council says Teara Fraser is making moves in aviation that will have an impact for generations. Also pictured L-R; Nicola Humphries with Iskwew Air, Kiana Alexander, Teara's daughter and with Iskwew Air and Jumbo Fraser, Teara's uncle. (asdas)

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.

"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 won't 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.

Jumbo (Fred) Fraser, right, looks at his niece Teara with pride saying he hopes she will consider moving or at least doing business in their Fort Chipewyan homelands. (Teara Fraser )

"We have just a winter road and the only way to get there is by boat or by plane," said Jumbo Fraser, Teara's cousin who came from Fort Chipewyan to witness the blessing.

'It's time'

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."

Read more from CBC British Columbia

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Teara Fraser was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to own an airline. In fact, she was the first Indigenous woman in Canada to start an airline on her own.
    Sep 24, 2018 12:58 PM PT

About the Author

Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C.