Iskwew Air, Dedicated to Indigenous Women, Gets Ready to Take Flight

Teara Fraser recalls her “watershed moment” in 2001 when she discovered the passion that would ultimately lead her to found the first-ever Indigenous woman-owned airline in Canada—and not coincidentally, to showcase the reclamation of female leadership in Indigenous communities.

It’s been a 17-year journey from a tourist jaunt to September 21, 2018, when Fraser and her airline, Iskwew Air (pronounced ISS-KWAY-YO) received a blessing and permission to operate on the lands of the Musqueam Nation, where the Vancouver International Airport is located.

“I was on a tour of Africa,” says Fraser, Metis. “I flew in a small plane for the first time on a flight over the Okavango Delta in Botswana.” As the pilot banked the aircraft, showing the passengers animals and trees “I was witnessing the land from above and sharing stories,” she says.

“I thought, ‘That would be the coolest job!’”

Her determination to make aviation her career was cemented while on a tandem skydive in Namibia. “I’d never felt like this before,” Fraser says. “This is what it’s like to find a passion!”

But then reality kicked in: “I didn’t have the ingredients or the recipe to make this happen,” she says.

That didn’t stop Fraser, though: “It took less than a year for me to get my commercial pilot’s rating,” says Fraser. “Obtaining that pilot’s license gave me opportunities.”

After flying for some regional airlines, Fraser decided that the usual measure of success for a pilot—”The bigger the bird the better”—wasn’t for her. “I wanted to continue to work toward a leadership role within the industry,” she says. “That’s how I came to realize that I was an entrepreneur.”

Owning her own firm also allows Fraser to build a business based on her own Indigenous values, including leadership.

In 2010, Fraser moved on to start her own firm, KÎSIK Aerial Survey Inc. (KÎSIK is a Cree word for sky and eye). “I had expertise in aerial surveying and I enjoyed it,” she says. After building KÎSIK “from the ground up,” she sold the firm in 2016. That first foray into entrepreneurship in aviation, where Fraser also served as accountable executive, operations manager, chief pilot and personal responsible for maintenance, paved the way for her new venture—Iskwew Air. “I learned a lot from running the survey business that will help me,” she says.

The airline’s name, the Cree word for woman, signifies Iskwew’s values, a reflection of Fraser’s own values: celebrating women and those who uplift women. Iskwew represents “an intentional act of the reclamation of womanhood, matriarchal leadership, and language,” says Iskwew’s press kit. “We value the warrior spirit, love and adventure, and reclamation and reciprocity.”

“We were mindful how we created Iskwew’s name,” says Fraser, whose ancestral community is Port Chipwyan, Alberta, although she says she doesn’t live there. “It’s a celebration of our languages, Indigenous women and First Nations.”

Beginning March 2019, Iskwew Air will be operating a charter service out of Vancouver International Airport and in the future will also operate short-term flights to specific destinations.

The idea of starting an airline sprang from when the city of Vancouver was planning for the 2010 Winter Olympics. “The committee wanted to showcase Indigenous communities,” she says. But, reaching those communities—or bringing Native people out from what are often very remote lands—created a barrier to realizing that goal. So Fraser says, “Why not help create prosperity for those communities that want to share their culture and language?” She saw that as an opportunity when she was considering her next venture nearly a decade later.

The blessing ceremony was particularly significant to Fraser as an Indigenous woman and as a business owner whose goal is to serve communicating with Native communities and peoples. “I’m proud of that,” she says. “We got the permission to operate on the Musqueam Nation’s traditional unceded territory.” It’s another way Fraser’s Indigenous values shine through. “It was very important for us to seek their permission and blessing,” says Fraser. “We really, genuinely, authentically asked for permission to do business. We wanted to start our operation in a good way.”

It was also a way to create an opportunity to celebrate Indigenous values, she says. “I hope this inspires other people to think about the significance of this protocol.”

Iskwew may have a humble start—Fraser purchased her first airplane, a twin-engine Piper Navajo, just nine days before the blessing ceremony—but she has big plans to grow the airline. “I want to create an environment where people are inspired and will do their part to keep people connected,” she says.

One way to do that is to address the critical pilot shortage that’s affecting aviation worldwide, and particularly in rural Canada. “I’m really concerned about the pilot shortage for Indigenous rural communities who depend on pilots for their basic human needs,” Fraser says. “Operators can’t get pilots to work in remote communities,” she adds, “but Indigenous people want to live at home.”

So, Fraser has set out to resolve that issue too. She just started Give Them Wings, a nonprofit that aims to give Indigenous youth the opportunity to explore what she calls a “career that’s really cool,” and to recruit them to embark on their own flight towards earning pilot’s wings, to both address the coming pilot crisis that she says is worsening, and to give Indigenous people a path to prosperity. “Our communities are very remote, and they depend on airlines.”

Fraser also values family. One of her valued staff members is her daughter Kiana Alexander, who’s also partnering with her mother on another venture, RavenSPEAK. It’s part of the Raven Institute, and is composed of a learning space, speaker showcase event and Indigenous speakers hub. It also reflects Fraser’s values, in that she’s helping other Indigenous women to find their voices and learn critical communications skills. “I wanted to create an environment where people are inspired and do our part to keep people connected,” she says.

Fraser also serves as a director on the board of the British Columbia Aviation Council and offers her hard-won expertise in aviation to firms as a strategic advisor, regulatory advisor, safety expert, executive coach, incident/accident trauma coach and leadership development designer. And, this hard-working and talented Indigenous woman leader holds a Master of Arts in Leadership degree from Royal Roads University and is currently a Ph.D. student in Human Development at Fielding University.

“It takes an entire community to see a business take flight,” Fraser says. “I’m proud of all the people I call my family.”