This is part of Stepping Up, a series introducing Canadians to their country’s new sources of inspiration and leadership.
There are lots of reasons people think of Teara Fraser as a wonder woman. She was a single mom struggling to make ends meet when she decided she wanted more from her life. Now she owns the first female-run Indigenous airline, pilots her plane to remote communities in support of the emerging Indigenous tourism market, actively supports other women and Indigenous entrepreneurs, is working on her PhD in Human Development and, during the pandemic, has begun airlifting essential supplies to Northern communities isolated by COVID-19.
Fraser’s journey from working entry-level jobs to launching an airline that runs humanitarian flights is the kind of triumphant story that super hero comics are written about. In fact, it’s one of 18 featured in an upcoming graphic novel anthology by DC Comics called Wonderful Women of History, scheduled to be released in 2021. Ms. Fraser says seeing her story chronicled alongside those of women like the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, musician Beyoncé and athlete Serena Williams has left her in awe.
“Being included in that list of change makers – women who are dismantling oppressive systems…I’m still struggling to find words,” she says.
Born in Hay River, N.W.T., Ms. Fraser lost her Métis father when she was 3 and grew up disconnected from her culture. Later, as a young mother of two, she felt unfulfilled and began exploring her Indigenous roots. When she started reconnecting with who she was as an Indigenous woman she says she began developing the power and strength needed to dream bigger things, “I finally made sense to myself.”
Her dreams took her to Africa, for a holiday that seemed impossible. “I had two young kids and very little money,” she says, but she managed to fund the trip. In Botswana, she took a “flightseeing trip” over the Okavango Delta and her life changed. “Witnessing the greatness of the land from the air was what first inspired me to fly."
In less than a year she had her commercial pilot’s licence, and in 2010 she started her own aerial survey company. A few years later, when Ms. Fraser learned that few airlines provided service to remote Indigenous communities in B.C., she developed a new goal: to boost Indigenous tourism, serve Indigenous communities and shake up an industry that’s not known for diversity and inclusion by launching an airline of her own.
Vancouver-based Iskwew Air began operations in October, 2019. Shortly after, the pandemic almost shut it down.
Ms. Fraser worried about the future of the new venture and its employees. But more than that, she was concerned about the communities she’d planned to serve. “There’s this history of Indigenous communities not receiving support during emergencies,” she says. This lack of assistance has taken many forms – from straight up racism and neglect, to patronizing assumptions about what a community might need.
“Our first step was to ask if communities wanted support. If they did, we asked what they needed."
The airlift project evolved from there. Requests came in from communities around B.C. for PPE items such as reusable social-distance masks, hand sanitizer and soap; fresh fruit and produce; and gardening supplies like seeds and even blueberry bushes to help with food security.
In one heart-wrenching situation, the Tseshaht people of Port Alberni requested safety equipment including flashlights and walkie-talkies after being subjected to a racist incident.
In a video interview, K’odi Nelson, Executive Director of Nawalakw Healing Society in Alert Bay, said the delivery of much-needed essential cleaning supplies felt like a message of love to his community.
Ms. Fraser is quick to deflect praise for both the project and for her personal success story. “Part of the Indigenous world view is the belief that you uplift one another,” she says.
She explains that early in her aviation career she became involved in two supportive organizations; SheEO and the LIFT Circle of Indigenous women entrepreneurs. SheEO supports women entrepreneurs with loans and mentoring – something Fraser explains is similar to the Indigenous way of doing things where money and resources keep circling through a community to support everyone, “This way we ensure no one is left behind.”
During the pandemic, SheEO members were encouraged to look at ways to keep their businesses afloat while supporting each other. Ms. Fraser realized if she could keep flying, she could bring remote communities the things they needed and support other women-owned businesses that might be struggling at the same time.
To raise money and awareness for Ms. Fraser’s airlifts, another SheEO member started a crowd-funding platform. When monetary donations came in, Ms. Fraser used the funds to purchase needed supplies from women or Indigenous-owned businesses.
Soon they had money and supplies for the first airlift flight, and since then, four more.
Communities that were isolated and in need were reminded people cared. “Lift means so many things – there’s the physics of flying and there’s the act of lifting each other up,” says Ms. Fraser. “When people ask for help and there is something you can do – it’s such a privilege.”