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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The first 100 percent Indigenous woman-owned airline launched its first scheduled flight on Aug. 16 after a delay from the pandemic.

“COVID has been absolutely devastating to Iskwew Air and the entire industry,” Founder and Lead Executive Teara Fraser, Métis, told Indian Country Today. “An airline startup in a global pandemic is literally next level impossible.”

The flight departed from Vancouver International Airport, where it was welcomed by Musqueam and Qualicum First Nations. The airline first asked the Musqueam people to do business on their lands.

Musqueam cultural knowledge keepers, Thelma and Art Stogan, greeted them with a celebratory water salute, blessing and cedar brushing.

The flight headed west, across the Strait of Georgia, the arm of the Salish Sea, to Qualicum Beach Airport. There, it was welcomed by Qualicum Chief Michael Recalma with a blanketing ceremony and welcome song from local cultural representatives.

“It is important to uplift Indigenous land story, sovereignty, and stewardship at every opportunity,” Fraser said in a news release. 

Cedar brushing by Musqueam cultural knowledge keepers. (Photo courtesy of Iskwew Air)

The idea of the airline began about a decade ago with Fraser’s interest in planes beginning about 20 years ago when she first traveled in a small aircraft in Africa. While flying, the pilot told stories about the land that transformed her perspective.

Now, Fraser hopes her airline will make an impact for Indigenous communities.

“I have a real passion for uplifting Indigenous tourism and connecting travelers with those really transformative experiences,” she said.

Iskwew, pronounced ISS-KWAY-YO, is a Cree word for woman that was chosen for the airline name as an “intentional act of the reclamation of womanhood, matriarchal leadership and language.”

“The name itself creates a learning opportunity,” Fraser said. “Marketing 101 says don’t name anything something people can’t say and it is a challenge to say and that’s alright. That’s a part of the conversation.”

Since the launch day, there have been an estimated 15 flights a week and continuation of charter service flights around the British Columbia province.

“We’ll continue to add routes in communities that need the service, and where we’re welcomed as demand grows. We plan to grow steady and smart,” Fraser said. For now, the airline operates between YVR South and Qualicum Beach Airport on Vancouver Island.

One of Iskwew Air’s goals is to work towards zero emission. Iskwew Air’s intention is to “bridge between traditional air transportation and the sustainable transportation of the future.”

Alisha Sohpaul, an aircraft maintenance engineer for Iskwew Air, said it has been an experience working with the airline.

“I’ve learned a lot that I haven’t learned in school whatsoever about Indigenous people and what’s happened throughout the year in Canada’s history,” she said.

Sohpaul is also one of the two percent females in her field, according to Transport Canada.

“It’s hard work to stick out in the hanger like a sore thumb constantly so you gotta have some thick skin to survive pretty much in our industry. Where I draw strength is when I see other females doing the same job,” she said.

The airline has also recently hired two Indigenous female employees; one is an apprentice and the other is an aircraft maintenance engineer.

“The girls are awesome and I love coming to work and working with them,” Sohpaul said.

For Fraser, as a Métis person, there is a particular importance of overseeing Iskwew Air. 

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