Founder of Indige­nous air­line has lofty goals

The Sudbury Star - - OPINION - CRAIG and MARC KIELBURGER 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.

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?” Fraser re­calls.

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.”

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