By Jenny Nguyen
“Not all heroes wear capes’’ is a quote we’ve all heard before, and it couldn’t be more true in the case of award-winning entrepreneur and Canadian aviation leader Teara Fraser. Fraser, alongside 18 other women, is profiled in the DC Comics graphic novel titled Wonderful Women of History. Honoured for their contributions to the world, Fraser’s story “Teara Fraser: Helping Others Soar” (written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Natasha Donovan) happens to be featured alongside the stories of other incredible changemakers, like super-star singer Beyoncé, disability rights activist Judith Heumann and tennis star Serena Williams, among others.
Proof that real-life superheroes do exist, Fraser uses her superpowers daily to affect positive change at the grassroots level. She is the tenacious and proudly Métis woman behind Iskwew Air (ISS-KWAY-YO)—Canada’s first Indigenous-owned airline. As an industry leader and single mother of two, Fraser sees the abundant potential that her worlds harness to transform and innovate. By building a bridge between Indigenous worldview and the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) sector, Fraser envisions a deconstructed model of the aviation industry for a decolonized future that inspires and propels forward racial, social, ecological and economic justice.
While travelling by air, “awe, wonder, fear and possibility” were the intense feelings awoken in Fraser back in 2007. As the tires of the small plane leapt from the runway and over the lush plains of the Okavango Delta, she immediately knew that she, too, needed to take flight. Within the following year, Fraser earned her Commercial Pilot’s license—which on average takes a total of two years to obtain—and ventured on her first solo flight. Fraser was relentlessly building the foundations for her dreams from scratch, and with a fiery momentum unwithheld, she founded the Aviation Leadership Foundation in 2008, launched a successful aerial imagery business in 2010, and by 2014 had held a number of different roles as director, executive director and strategic advisor on the British Columbia Aviation Council. As if that were not enough, Fraser also founded the Raven Institute and the Indigenous LIFT Collective, organizations for connecting hearts and minds beyond the runway.
Although Fraser has inspired countless others through her work, she admits she could have never imagined the potential power that advanced air technologies could have as a tool for social change when she first began her career in aviation. However, with a keen fascination for futurism and an innate drive to push the boundaries of a world socialized against her Indigenous identity and womanness, she is constructing her own trajectory to reach new heights in an exclusive, white male-dominated space.
Iskwew Air, the name of which is an homage to the Cree word for “woman” and the reclamation of womanhood, was born out of Fraser’s desire to foster sustainable relationships with the land and to connect people to each other in spaces of belonging. Drawing from the matriarchal traditions and innovative spirit of her Métis heritage, Fraser also sought to reconstruct a systemically oppressive industry with an organization unlike any other seen in the Western world. “Indigenous Peoples have always been innovators. Métis culture, in particular, is about creating opportunities and finding innovative ways to service our communities,” said Fraser. The airline has actively promoted diverse leadership, the celebration of women and the uplifting of Indigenous communities since its establishment in 2017.
In spite of the overwhelming consequences of COVID-19 on the aviation and tourism industries, Iskwew’s eight-seater twin engine The Sweetgrass Warrior has taken to the skies with a new project. Crowdfunded in collaboration with LIFT Collective, AirLIFT is one of Iskwew’s latest initiatives to deliver essential supplies to Indigenous communities throughout British Columbia. To Fraser, “Warriorship is standing deeply for what matters,” and it is clear her passion for equity and instinctual response to adversity follow her as she sets off on this adventure.
With an inventive pioneer behind its wheel, it comes as no surprise that Iskwew Air’s latest endeavour promises to be the new frontier of air transportation and infrastructure. The airline now finds itself alongside 20 of Canada’s leading aerospace stakeholders as a partner with the Canadian Advanced Air Mobility Consortium (CAAM), an initiative to develop research in the Advanced Air Mobility Sector. SAY Magazine had a chance to sit down with Teara Fraser to discuss this project and what it means for Indigenous innovation.
SAY: How have your personal/cultural experiences as an Indigenous woman fuelled your entrepreneurial business models?
Fraser: I bring all my experiences with me. That’s part of the gift of an Indigenous worldview—we bring all of our experiences and our relationships with us. That’s where possibility exists.
SAY: What, or who, inspires you to keep moving forward?
Fraser: That’s always a hard question for me to answer. I’m always inspired by the wisdom of others. I’m always looking to learn from others. I have different things to learn from different people. But I’d say my role models are my children who teach me every day—our young people are so smart and wise, and connected with the things that matter. We have lots to learn from them.
SAY: Iskwew Air is currently doing incredible transformational work with CAAM. Can you tell us more about what the vision for Advanced Air Mobility means to you?
Fraser: Iskwew Air is seen as the bridge between traditional air transportation and sustainable technologies of the future. I’m particularly interested in how we bring Indigenous wisdom together with modern technologies to uplift Indigenous land, stories, sovereignty and stewardship. I’m interested in how we can have Indigenous Peoples lead in this innovative space, in research, understanding, development, operations and investment. The entire aviation and aerospace industry has been
severely impacted by COVID-19, and in many ways, it’s dismantling. Without women, Indigenous Peoples, people of colour and companies like Iskwew Air, the whole industry will simply be rebuilt by white men once again—that serves no one. I believe that together we can reimagine, rematriate and rebuild an air transportation system that centers on equity, resilience and, most importantly, sustainability.
SAY: How does it feel to be profiled by DC Comics as a Wonder Woman?
Fraser: Weird! I feel a lot of responsibility comes with that. It’s an incredible honour to be named along with people who are truly working in this world for all kinds of justice—racial, social, economic and ecological.
Jenny Nguyen is a communications team member with the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau (IISB) and an English Major at York University.