Teara Fraser has become accustomed to major life events.
In 2001, the now 51-year-old entrepreneur experienced an epiphany when she flew for the first time as a passenger in a small aircraft. “I wanted to touch everything in the airplane and I wanted to know what everything was,” she later recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t care what it takes to be able to do this. I want to fly an airplane.’”
Within a year, she had obtained a commercial pilot license.
Throughout the years that followed, Fraser, who is Métis, established a foundation dedicated to leadership and safety in the aviation industry; founded an aerial surveying company; and founded a non-profit that connects and uplifts Indigenous peoples, among many other accomplishments.
Her list of achievements proved so impressive that she caught the attention of DC Comics, which included her in the graphic novel Wonderful Women of the World alongside the likes of Serena Williams, Greta Thunberg and Beyoncé.
Perhaps most significantly of all, in 2017 Fraser founded Iskwew Air, the first Canadian airline 100% owned and operated by an Indigenous woman.
“The vision for what is now Iskwew [pronounced Iss-KWAY-yo] Air was born when the Four Host First Nations and Vancouver/Whistler were vying for the Olympics,” explains Fraser. “There was a commitment to bring travellers into Vancouver and surrounding areas, but to also showcase B.C.’s First Nations and Indigenous people throughout the province. It was then that I thought about going into those smaller communities, with a smaller aircraft, and being able to connect travellers to Indigenous tourism experiences, to each other and to the land.”
It would be another decade before Iskwew Air launched in earnest – in the midst of the pandemic, no less – but the airline is now flourishing. In August 2021, Iskwew began scheduled service between Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and Qualicum Beach Airport. “We had a beautiful ceremony,” Fraser recalls. “We were sent off by Musqueam Indian Band and welcomed by Qualicum First Nation on our inaugural flight between the two communities. That was very special.”
And now, Iskwew Air has signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with YVR to advance Indigenous businesses and tourism in B.C. This MOU signals the beginning of a new partnership – one that acknowledges the power of unique perspectives, accountability, and a shared vision to support the development of Indigenous businesses and a sustainable Indigenous tourism economy, thereby supporting the economic recovery of B.C.
“Iskwew Air and YVR share an understanding about the importance of Indigenous tourism and how to uplift it,” says Fraser, noting that one of the earliest jobs in her aviation career was working in operations at YVR. “One of my most important messages I like to convey is that uplifting Indigenous businesses is the most natural, swift and effective pathway to economic reconciliation in our country.
“I’m always engaging people and organizations in this regard, because when Indigenous businesses are thriving, those resources are going back into families and communities. YVR shares in that, and that’s why we’re strengthening our partnership in that interest.”
As well as aiming to expand the frequency of flights to and from Qualicum Beach, Fraser says Iskwew Air and YVR’s future plans include “a journey to a more sustainable industry ecosystem. I’m excited to work with YVR’s Innovation Hub on lowering emissions, green initiatives, and being in the spirit of collaboration to see how we can walk more softly on Mother Earth… We [Iskwew Air] see ourselves as a bridge between traditional air transportation and the sustainable technologies of the future. I see us innovating, collaborating, finding ways to create more equitable and sustainable systems in aviation and aerospace.”
Together with Musqueam, YVR is working towards true reconciliation and a mutually beneficial future year-round, every single day. This starts with creating opportunities to support sustainable Indigenous-owned businesses and engage in Indigenous protocols while encouraging partners and the business community to do the same. This type of support allows the likes of Iskwew Air to not only survive, but thrive.
“An airline start-up in a global pandemic is next-level hard,” says Fraser. “But we persevered, and that perseverance is largely the result of a community that comes together, such as this partnership with YVR. It’s the working together, the innovating together, the caring for one another.”
To learn more about Iskwew Air and to book a flight, visit iskwew.ca.