Teara Fraser smiles in front of a plane. She's making a heart shape with her hands.
Photo Credit: Josh Neufeld | Globe & Mail

Iskwew Air is Doing Flight Differently

COVID was an opportunity to re-imagine flight

Taking to the skies and walking more softly on mother earth

Teara Fraser is the first Indigenous woman to start an airline. This Métis powerhouse is also a pilot. “Flying a plane is straight-up cool,” she told Vancouver Magazine.

And she has taken flight on VanIsle. Her airline, Iskwew Air, flies between Qualicum Beach and Vancouver. The name means “woman” in Cree.

It took her ten years to get the company off the ground, as it were. The idea percolated in the back of her head while she owned and ran her own aerial survey company.

But she wanted to do more.

“We’re taught from an Indigenous perspective to use the wisdom that we’ve been gifted…to serve in community. And so I wanted to bring together my love and support for small communities with my aviation background and find ways to be of service,” Fraser told Greater Vancouver’s Business Podcast (GVPOD).

“When Indigenous women in businesses are uplifted, those resources and those nutrients go back into family and go back into the community,” she told Douglas Magazine.

“It’s about supporting, connecting one another, and it’s a whole ecosystem or community of care. When you’re in the community, you have the ability to uplift each other.”

The company has been flying charter flights since 2018. But they got all their certifications to start the airline six months before the pandemic. That wasn’t an easy time for anyone, let alone a new business based on travel.

“But you just have to work with what’s happening,” she told GVPOD. But it was “literally next-level hard.”

They got by flying needed supplies to remote communities. Fraser told GVPOD she’s tired of the word “pivot,” but that’s precisely what the pandemic forced her to do.

The airline not only survived, it thrived. They bought a second aircraft, started scheduled flights, and created their own all-women maintenance organization.

How did they do it?

“I think what’s most important to highlight is partnerships, relationships and doing business differently,” Fraser told Douglas. “And really thinking through the pandemic: how can we be of service?”

Asking what the community really needs helped Fraser focus on how airlines can grow and change in times of crisis. She doesn’t want the industry to continue on as it always has, especially as looming problems like climate change alter how we live and travel.

“How do we rebuild, especially in this COVID time?” she asked herself. “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,” she told Douglas.

Many business owners have struggled during the pandemic, but few had Fraser’s fortitude.

Despite sleepless nights, she saw COVID as an opportunity.

“There’s this beautiful, rich opportunity to say okay, everything is nothing like it was before, so how do we want to come together and really think about how we want it to be in the future and create it?” she told GVPOD.

On August 16th, 2022, the airline celebrated its first anniversary of daily service. They also threw themselves a Perseverance Party to celebrate the first Indigenous and Black woman, Bessie Coleman, getting her pilot’s license, and their own perseverance. We may all need to adopt this kind of party!

For a pilot, Fraser makes a lot of waves.

Business Intelligence for BC named her a leader in transportation in this year’s BIV BC 500 list.

In 2020, DC Comics featured her in their graphic novel, Wonderful Women of History. She was named alongside people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Serena Williams.

And fellow Indigenous-owned airlines are starting to pop up. Iskwew Air helped celebrate the launch of Gulf Island Seaplanes, which flies between Hornby, Gabriola, and downtown Vancouver.

Regarding her airline, Fraser says, “[w]e’re being mindful about how we can walk more softly on Mother Earth.”

Or, you know, fly more softly over it.

We hope Fraser’s example influences other big industry players to do the same.