Iskwew Air is the first airline in Canada 100% owned and operated by an Indigenous woman. Founded in 2018, the newly certified airline launched during the challenge of a lifetime — the pandemic. Tenacity, resilience and perseverance, and a strong set of game-changing values are guiding the airline’s success.
Teara Fraser, founder of Iskwew Air (Iskwew is a Cree word for women), says the name is an act of reclamation of womanhood in a very male dominated industry.
Iskwew Air wasn’t built in a day. For Teara Fraser, the company’s founder and lead executive officer (LEO) starting her own airline was a decade-old idea, predated by her love of aerospace, that just wouldn’t let her go. Initially, it was one short trip on one small plane that galvanized Fraser to become a pilot.
“There are a few things more inspiring than the wonder of flight,” says Fraser. “To be able to witness the land as a bird would — there’s something about that that is so profound and powerful.”
The initial idea for Iskwew Air (iss-kway-yo) had been hatched when Vancouver and Whistler were vying for the Olympic Games, wanting to showcase First Nations communities to the world and connect visitors with authentic stories of the land. A report, issued at the time, identified a clear barrier to connecting small, remote communities, and that sparked Fraser’s imagination
“I believe that creating the conditions for Indigenous businesses to thrive is the single, most natural, swift and effective pathway to economic reconciliation in our country,” says Fraser. “In particular, when Indigenous women in business are uplifted, those resources and those nutrients go back into family and go back into community.”
Against the Headwind
Starting an airline is difficult at the best of times, but starting an airline — literally receiving the operating certificate — mere months before a pandemic is arguably a challenge of a lifetime. It’s certainly one that Fraser and her team rose to and learned from.
“I think the key reasons [that we are still here] are tenacity, resilience, perseverance — all those things that it takes to be an entrepreneur,” says Fraser, who is Métis and the first Indigenous woman in Canada to own her own airline. “I think what’s most important to highlight is partnerships, relationships and doing business differently. And really thinking through the pandemic: How can we be of service?”
The team persevered, bringing on a second aircraft during the pandemic, starting scheduled flights and creating their own maintenance department, specializing in Piper twin-piston and Cessna single-piston aircraft. They also leaned into the community, running a fundraising campaign with SheEO, a group of “radically generous” women and non-binary activators who help women make progress on a global to-do list, to deliver essentials and love to Indigenous communities. This support helped Iskwew Air lean into its values, like reciprocity with the community, honouring Indigenous peoples and stewarding the land itself.
“It’s about supporting, connecting one another, and it’s a whole ecosystem or community of care,” says Fraser. “When you’re in the community, you have the ability to uplift each other.”
Community is a long-time motivator for Fraser, who founded the Raven Institute, elevating the voices, stories and profiles of Indigenous people through programs such as the six month RavenSPEAK. She also founded the not-for-profit Indigenous LIFT Collective and launched Give them Wings (an Indigenous youth program) and LIFT Circle (collectively co-creating the conditions for Indigenous women entrepreneurs to thrive).
Today, Iskwew Air has two eight-passenger aircraft and a team of eight people who operate scheduled daily service between Qualicum Beach Airport and Vancouver Airport South Terminal, a quick 25-minute hop over. This route was identified in the original business plan 10 years ago for its suitability for the size of aircraft — too small for larger airlines to service.
A 16-month engagement process with the town of Qualicum Beach preceded the airline’s launch. That included open town hall meetings and engagement with the Qualicum First Nation to find out whether Iskwew Air could be of service to the community and if the community wanted that service.
Ripe for Disruption
According to a 2016 report by the Aerospace Industries Association of Canada, the B.C. aerospace industry is made up of approximately 190 small, medium and large aerospace and aerospace-related businesses. Pre-pandemic, the sector employed over 8,000 British Columbians directly and up to another 12,000 indirectly.
“People don’t realize the extent to which aviation and aerospace serves the movement of critical medical supplies; the movement of people to life-critical medical support, supplies, professionals; and how important the industry is to the movement of goods,” says Fraser, who owned her own aerial surveying company, Kisik Aerial Survey, from 2010 to 2017.
Her vision for Iskwew Air is to be a bridge between “traditional air transportation and the sustainable technology of the future.
“For me, it is about how we disrupt all of these systems that are no longer serving the community and community as a whole,” says Fraser. “How do we rebuild, especially in this COVID time? It has forced us to be more adaptable, creative, nimble, thinking differently than ever before. It is at this moment that we can choose to reimagine, rematriate and rebuild systems that centre equity — and that means racial equity, ecological equity, economic equity and social equity.”
For Iskwew Air, that starts with carbon-neutral flights and a vision to becoming a fully carbon-neutral airline through a carbon offset program. A partnership with the Vancouver-based Ostrom Climate allows the company to assess total GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions and make the necessary commitments to reducing them as much as possible. Undertaking an annual carbon inventory keeps data current.
“We are advocates for people decolonizing and decarbonizing our skies for the next seven generations,” says Fraser, who chose to give the Great Bear Forest Carbon Project their offset purchases. “It means bringing an Indigenous lens to the future that we build.”
Iskwew Air was one of 18 founding members in 2019 of the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium. The mission is to work toward a unified national strategy for zero-emission advanced air mobility with regional implementation in Canada. With over 70 members from industry, government, academia and associations, the consortium educates, raises awareness and provides project support.
“We’re deeply involved and deeply invested in the work that needs to be done to transition this industry to be able to walk more softly on mother Earth,” says Fraser.
The Future Is Female
Just being a woman entrepreneur has its challenges, says Fraser, who cites the context that roughly 80 per cent of women make purchasing decisions, 50 per cent of small business owners are female and only a couple per cent of venture capital goes to women. That two to three per cent is a number that frames the experience of being a woman in aerospace in roles that range from senior level management to maintenance engineering.
“It’s notable to go from defeminizing myself and ignoring that there were gender barriers early in my career, to a point now where I literally named my company ‘woman air’ [Iskwew is a Cree word for woman]. That comes with its own sets of challenges. But it was an act of disruption. It was an act of reclamation — reclamation of womanhood, matriarchal leadership and language.”
With Iskwew Air, Fraser is embodying her vision as a leader, addressing systemic inequality and gliding toward the future she wants to see. Fraser is motivated, wise and an astute and progressive businesswoman. Iskwew Air is a roadmap showing how Indigenous businesses can be the “single most natural, swift and effective pathway to economic reconciliation.”
Until recently, Fraser was writing a PhD on the concept of warriorship, one of the company’s core values (the warrior spirit), alongside love, adventure, reclamation and reciprocity. She has put her studies on pause to focus on guiding Iskwew Air through this challenging time, but the depth of this inquiry speaks to Fraser’s being and to the breadth of her leadership.
“I define warriorship as standing fiercely with deep love for what matters,” says Fraser. “I’m asking the questions: How do we remember, reclaim, practise and integrate warriorship in our lives? How do we be both fierce and show deep love and care for the things that matter, all at the same time?”
In 2020, Fraser received a surprising honour. She was chosen as one of 18 women featured in DC Comics’ graphic novel Wonderful Women of History. Featured alongside Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Serena Williams and Beyoncé, Fraser’s section was written by Cherokee writer Traci Sorell and illustrated by Métis artist Natasha Donovan.
“I’m in awe of the women in this book,” says Fraser. “It feels like an immense honour, and it also comes with a deep sense of responsibility. The leaders in that book are dismantling oppressive systems — that’s what Wonder Woman is all about. I think it’s really important to acknowledge all the superheroes — all the people that are working hard to create a better world. The real superheroes are those working at the grassroots level.”′