Indigenous female-owned airline to begin operations on Vancouver Island

Indigenous female-owned airline to begin operations on Vancouver Island

Canada’s first Indigenous female-founded airline will soon be buzzing in and out of an airport on Vancouver Island.

Iskwew Air (pronounced ISS-KWAY-YO) recently announced that it will begin operating non-stop scheduled service between Qualicum Beach Airport and Vancouver International Airport as early as next week.

The Vancouver-based airline will operate flights between the two communities four times per week — running on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays — using an eight-seat PA31 Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft. Once operational, the route will be the company’s first scheduled service of any kind.

Teara Fraser, the airline’s founder and chief executive officer, said she has been eyeing starting service to Qualicum Beach for years and believes the central Vancouver Island town is the right place to begin the Iskwew Air’s first-ever service. Qualicum Beach hasn’t had scheduled service to YVR since April of last year after Island Express ceased operations.

“It’s a small community. It’s been without service for quite some time and it is just right for our little airplane. The [runway] strip is too small for some of the bigger airlines to fly into and just right for us,” she said, adding. “Qualicum Beach has been something that we’ve been looking at since the inception of the airline as a possible community.”

Founded in 2018, Iskwew Air became the first-ever Indigenous woman-founded airline in Canada. The word Iskwew means woman in Cree, and Fraser, who is Métis, says it was chosen for a number of reasons.

“The name was chosen as an active reclamation, reclamation of womanhood, reclamation of matriarchal leadership, and reclamation of language. Yes, I am a woman and I am a very proud Métis woman,” said Fraser. “You know, in this industry, there isn’t a lot of diversity. There are few women and few women of colour certainly and this is about creating some diversity and celebrating and amplifying the importance of diversity in our industry.”

Fraser, who is also a pilot and was featured in a DC Comics novel called Wonderful Women of History that also includes tennis star Serena Williams and the late United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg among others, says her dream of starting an airline actually came to her when British Columbia was vying for the Winter Olympics more than a decade ago.

“There was an aspiration of the Olympic organizing committee to showcase First Nations and connect travellers from around the world into smaller communities throughout British Columbia and I thought, you know what I can help with that, I would love to do that, and uplift Indigenous peoples and communities and tourism,” she explained.

Though Fraser’s dream didn’t come to life then, it never died out either and in 2018 she decided the time was right and officially launched Iskwew Air, becoming the first Indigenous-female founder of an airline in Canada.

“It sat in waiting and nearly a decade later I decided that the time was right. The vision is a little bit bigger than Indigenous tourism. Although our heart is very much connected with supporting Indigenous tourism and uplifting them, it is also now looking beyond that,” said Fraser.

Since its founding, Iskwew Air has been running charter service to smaller communities, mainly up north.

The airline currently has two planes and a staff of around six people, the majority of whom are women, including the head of aircraft maintenance, Alisha Sohpaul.

“This is a real humble start, we just have now two small airplanes. But you know, the regulatory framework is similar, regardless of your size,” she said, later adding. “Only 2.3 per cent of aircraft maintenance engineers are women and the first woman aircraft maintenance engineer was licensed in Canada on March 11, 1971. There are still very, very few women engineers, so we are super, super proud and excited to have our maintenance division led by an incredible woman, Alisha Sohpaul.”

“The aim is to create a place where, where everybody belongs, and where, you know, historically excluded, or underrepresented groups or peoples feel like they have a place where they have a sense of belonging and where there is diverse peoples and perspectives. So it’s, it’s a place where everybody belongs.”

A few years into existence, Iskwew has not only had to face the challenges that come with being a new airline but it has also had to navigate the unpredictability that has been the coronavirus pandemic, which has crippled global and local air travel.

“Starting an airline and then being faced with a global pandemic is next level impossible. But, you know, we have persevered and we’re still here,” said Fraser. “We just had to overcome those challenges and do that by working in the community, asking for help when we need it, taking the help that’s offered … part of my mantra when things get tough is to just keep moving.”

While Fraser says the pandemic has made it hard to predict the future, she says whatever the future holds for the airline industry, she wants Iskwew to play a role in making it become far more environmentally sustainable.

“We see ourselves as a bit of a bridge between traditional air transportation and the sustainable transportation of the future. So, we’re very invested in what does that future looks like; where we can walk more softly on Mother Earth? So we are using this time to reimagine and repatriate and rebuild this industry towards a more sustainable system,” she said.

Iskwew Air has also pledged to become entirely carbon neutral and is a member of the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium, which aims to create a unified national strategy for zero-emissions advanced air mobility with regional implementation.

“We have to do better as a whole industry. And there’s no better time than right now. Right? We’ve got an industry that is in shambles right now we can either just rebuild it the same way we did it before, which we just simply can’t do or we can re-envision what that looks like and I’ll be working together towards a more sustainable system and one that is centred on equity.”

At the end of the day, Fraser says she wants Iskwew Air to be a leader and help bring about positive changes to the aviation industry.

“I’ve been two decades in aviation and from an Indigenous perspective, we are taught to do good with what we’ve learned and to good to do good with our teachings and our skills. And so, what I’m working to do is to use what I’ve learned in this industry, and put it to excellent use.”

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Nicholas PescodNicholas Pescod

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