Teara Fraser is a Métis aviator, entrepreneur and leader. She is a board director for Unmanned Systems Canada and, in 2019, became the first Indigenous woman in Canada to start her own airline, Iskwew Air. Beyond her entrepreneurial work, she holds a master’s degree in leadership, is currently completing a PhD in human development and is a certified executive coach. In 2020, Ms. Fraser was chosen to be among the 18 women featured in DC Comics’s forthcoming graphic novel, Wonderful Women of History, which also includes late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren and Beyoncé.
What does being Indigenous mean to you?
I believe that when you’re operating from an Indigenous worldview, there is a feeling that you’re not alone. Like you’re part of something more than just yourself. There is a sense of connection to all your relations, to your ancestors, to future generations – and most of all, to the land. I refer to this as a relational worldview because it’s all about the interdependence of relationships and the foundational understanding that we’re all connected. While this worldview manifests itself differently across nations and communities, I believe it is something that many Indigenous peoples share because it’s based on thousands and thousands of years of traditional wisdom. But let me be clear, while I am Indigenous, I do not speak for all Indigenous peoples. I can only speak from my own experience and I cannot speak on behalf of anyone other than myself. I believe it is important to clarify this when engaging with and speaking about the diverse Indigenous nations and peoples of this land.
Tell us about some Indigenous leaders who inspired you.
A major influence and inspiration in my leadership are the matriarchs and wise Indigenous women that I have the pleasure of knowing and learning from. I am incredibly blessed to be part of a community of Indigenous women who uplift and support each other. This has allowed me to really embrace and take pride in my own identity as a Métis woman and provides me strength as a leader every day. This feminine power and energy are incredibly important to me. In fact, Iskwew Air actually is a Cree word for woman and I chose that name as an active reclamation of language, womanhood and matriarchal leadership.
What is your approach to leadership?
I always come back to this essential question at the end of the day: What really matters? I believe that’s what a leader’s job is – to connect people with what really matters. When I reflect on that question, I think about a sense of holistic wellness, the relationships that we share with one another, our collective connection with the land, and our responsibility to the seven generations to come. With these in mind, I do my best to lead with a sense of responsibility and connection.
What are your reflections on Indigenous business as an entrepreneur yourself?
Creating the conditions for Indigenous businesses to thrive is the most effective, natural and quickest way to economic reconciliation in our country. When Indigenous businesses thrive, it’s about much more than any one individual’s success; it’s about uplifting entire families, communities and nations.
What is your approach when working with Indigenous communities?
When working with Indigenous communities, building and maintaining a good relationship is essential. This means that you need to be humble in your approach, transparent in your communication, always have their best interests at heart and, most of all, don’t wait until the last minute to ask permission to do business on a nation’s territory.
With Iskwew Air, I asked the Musqueam people for their blessing to do business on their lands as soon as I bought the airplane and long before I launched my business. Since then, our company has prioritized honouring the communities that we serve, acknowledging the territories we go into, and creating awareness about the issues that matter to them.
How did you begin working in aviation?
For most of my life, the prospect of travelling to faraway places and flying in airplanes seemed like an impossible dream. Then, when I was 30 years old, I was seeking a change and took a life-changing trip to Africa. For the first time ever, I had the chance to take small bush planes and see the world from a different perspective. I immediately realized I had a passion for flying. Overwhelmed by this realization, I told myself, ‘You’re a single mom; you have two kids; you have very little education; you’ve nowhere to get any support from; and you don’t even know anybody in aviation.’
A couple of weeks later, I did a skydiving tour in that same small plane. I can still tell you everything about that moment. When we taxied that aircraft out, I wanted to touch everything on the dashboard. I couldn’t help myself, I wanted to know how everything worked. It was then when I said to myself, ‘I don’t care what it takes to make this happen, I’m going to fly airplanes.’ From there, I came home from Africa and within a week I started my flight training. Within a year, I had a commercial pilot’s licence in hand. The rest is history.
Does being a female airline owner come with certain challenges?
Aviation is a very male-dominated industry with very little diversity in it, so that creates all sorts of challenges. In my experience, I’ve faced both sexism and racism more than once. As a method of self-protection early in my career, I de-feminized myself to fit in and survive. Now, I don’t do that any more. I am proud to be a woman. I’m proud to be a life giver. In fact, the growing confidence in who I am is a large part of why I’m doing this – to invite some disruption and gender equity into our industry.
What is your favourite part of flying?
Flying always fills me with such wonder. Every time I fly, I feel so grateful to be able to see glaciers, mountains, trees and the vastness of the land. Being in the air is such a different way to both see and appreciate the land. Seeing all of Mother Nature, I am constantly reminded how big the world is that I’m connected to. It’s incredibly humbling and, funnily enough, very grounding.
What is your advice to Indigenous youth today?
You have the right to dream, and you have the right to belong wherever you dream to be. Take the time to find what sets your heart on fire, then, with that understanding, dream big, design your plan and then do it. PS: When things inevitably get hard, just keep moving.
What are your plans for Iskwew Air in 2021?
Iskwew Air is combining an Indigenous lens with modern technologies to uplift, energize and amplify Indigenous land stories, sovereignty and stewardship. With this in mind, we have recently stepped into the world of RPAS (remotely piloted aircraft systems, commonly known as drones) and advanced air mobility. To advance our work in this area, Iskwew Air has become a founding member of the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium. In 2021 and beyond, we see ourselves as the bridge between traditional air transportation and the sustainable technology of the future.
Read more from our Indigenous business leaders series:
Summers living off the land influenced leadership style of Inuk CEO Clint Davis
For Mi’kmaw educator Marie Battiste, inner growth is essential to be a leader
‘Our survival utterly depends on living in nature, not apart from it,’ Indigenous rights advocate says
For Senator Murray Sinclair, leadership is defined by humility
Trust is the foundation of leadership, says Chief Terry Paul of Membertou First Nation
We must prioritize economic reconciliation, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business CEO Tabatha Bull says
For Tracy Bear, leadership begins with accountability, service and connection to the land
For APTN chief executive Monika Ille, leadership means honouring her Nation’s history
Pause, think, listen: National Bank Financial’s Sean St. John on using Indigenous approaches to leadership
About the series
Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.
Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.
Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at Forbes.com since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and he has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.
Wáhiakatste Diome-Deer is completing her master’s degree in educational leadership at McGill. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and brain sciences from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and has completed graduate work at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is a consultant in education, leadership and Indigenization for organizations and schools, and has previously held positions at the Kahnawake Education Center, the Quebec Native Women association and the Canadian Executive Service Organization. Ms. Diome-Deer is a traditional Kanien’kehá:ka woman from the community of Kahnawà:ke.
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