Founder of Indigenous airline has lofty goals
The Sweetgrass Warrior is no ordinary plane. The twin-engine Piper Navajo is probably the only commercial aircraft to be blessed by First Nations elders. It’s also the flagship of Iskwew Air, Canada’s first airline owned and almost entirely run by Indigenous women.
In 2000, Teara Fraser was a 30-something Métis mother of two, working dead-end jobs in Vancouver, whatever she could find with no postsecondary education. Today, Fraser is the CEO of Iskwew Air, where she’s turning her love of flying into a vehicle for empowering First Nations communities, women and youth.
“There are moments where you say: What do I want for my future?”
Sick of unreliable work and unpredictable hours, she made a bucket list after the new millennium. At the top: travel across Africa. It seemed an impossible dream. She saved every penny and worked longer hours.
Losing time with her family was the hardest sacrifice, she says. Fraser’s teenage daughter was skeptical about investing in a trip, but pitched in nonetheless, babysitting her young brother. One year later, the family had saved enough.
Arriving in Botswana, Fraser signed up for an aerial tour. It was her first time in a small plane. Watching the Savannah roll by endlessly beneath the wings, Fraser found her true love.
“I decided I would do whatever it took to be a pilot,” she says.
Back in Canada, she saved again, this time to enroll in flight school. Within a year, she’d earned her commercial pilot’s license and become active in the aviation industry, launching the Aviation Leadership Foundation and serving on the British Columbia Aviation Council (BCAC).
By 2016, Fraser was looking to do even more. She thought back to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when Indigenous communities opened their doors, benefitting from the influx of international visitors.
Tourism holds the potential to significantly benefit Indigenous peoples, not just through economic growth, but through greater cultural awareness generated by access to often remote communities.
“I want to contribute to that, to make an impact on both travellers and communities,” says Fraser. She would launch her own airline.
The dream almost died in the spring of 2017. Overcome by setbacks and self-doubt, Fraser took a break from the project and nearly gave up. Her biggest challenge as an entrepreneur, she realized, was one that only she could overcome: finding the courage.
In September, Fraser unveiled Iskwew Air with a blessing ceremony from the elders of British Columbia’s Musqueam First Nation. Iskwew will offer chartered and scheduled air service to Indigenous communities.
Fraser also launched Give Them Wings, a project encouraging Indigenous youth to get involved in aviation, offering flight training and mentorship for aspiring pilots.
“I want to see Indigenous people — especially women — reflected in our world for their incredible resilience, wisdom and tenacity,” says Fraser.
Iskwew (pronounced iss-kway-yo) is the Cree word for woman. Symbolically, Iskwew Air will officially take to the air next year, on International Women’s Day.
“Now, my children feel proud and grateful,” says Fraser,
“But more importantly, they feel like they can make their own dreams come true.”
Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE
Day. For more dispatches from
WE, check out WE stories.
CRAIG and MARC KIELBURGER