It’s a Good Thing: Iskwew Air breaks both literal and figurative borders

How a trip to Africa—and an indomitable spirit—helped Teara Fraser to launch a pioneering new airline.

How a trip to Africa—and an indomitable spirit—helped Teara Fraser to launch a pioneering new airline

Growing up in northern B.C., Teara Fraser had a rather limited horizon. The family bounced from town to town, and her single mother from job to job (her Métis father died when she was three). Fraser left Quesnel for Vancouver at age 20—with no high school diploma, little money and even fewer prospects. “I said to myself, If I stay in this small town, with life the way it is, what possible opportunities can I make for myself?”

Arriving in the big city, Fraser took on a variety of entry-level jobs as an administrative assistant and then became a Save-On-Foods clerk. Along the way, she had two kids, all on her own. The hand-to-mouth struggle grew more daunting. “When I look back, it’s hard to believe how you can make things happen,” says Fraser, founder and CEO of Iskwew Air, Canada’s first 100-percent Indigenous-woman-owned airline, from her home in Delta.

One day, as she approached her 30th birthday, Fraser came upon a book while searching the self-help section of Chapters. “The book’s advice was to write yourself a list of the things you wanted to do in your life,” Fraser recalls. “The first thing I wrote was ‘Go to Africa.’ I’d never been anywhere.” She saved for almost a year, and then, in October 2001, took off for five weeks in Africa (leaving her children, then two and seven, with family).

It was there—on an aerial tour of the Okavango Delta in Botswana—that she realized she wanted to be a pilot: “I suddenly wanted to know everything about what was in the cockpit, to touch everything, to know how everything worked.” Within a year of returning to Vancouver, Fraser had obtained her commercial pilot’s licence.

From there, her career took off. Fraser worked for a handful of small charter operators and piloted for Terrace-based Hawk Air. By 2010, she had saved enough money to launch her first business, Kisik Aerial Survey. “At that point, I’d decided I’d made lots of sacrifices with my family, and I didn’t want to be away as much,” Fraser says. She ran Kisik for six years before selling the company in 2016. Fraser contemplated leaving the industry post-sale, but ultimately decided she still had fire in her belly. “When I look at Kisik and what made that succeed, I lead differently,” she says. “I build a place where people want to work, where people are invested.”

This March, Iskwew Air made its inaugural flight out of YVR‘s South Terminal. So far, the charter operation has been a modest affair—just one plane, a Piper Navajo, and four employees (including Fraser and her daughter, Kiana Alexander)—though Fraser has ambitions to expand the focus and seize upon the burgeoning Indigenous tourism market. “People are interested in an authentic experience that connects them with the land and the history of that land,” she says.

Iskwew is the Cree word for woman—and for Fraser, the time is right for female entrepreneurs: “The world needs more matriarchal leadership. More women in leadership. And leadership from an Indigenous world view, where our leaders are connected with what matters.” She tries to nurture that leadership through the Raven Institute, an organization she runs with Kiana to help develop teams and organizations from an Indigenous perspective.

And as if those two enterprises weren’t enough, this spring Fraser launched Give Them Wings, a not-for-profit program that introduces Indigenous youth to potential careers in aviation.  “What I want to be able to do is liberate possibilities for others, like I did for myself,” she says. For the next generation of Indigenous Canadians, she hopes, the sky will be the limit. 

State of the Nations

A 2018 survey of Indigenous business owners in B.C. by Vancity, done in partnership with the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, included these findings:

More than 90% of survey respondents said their operations have been successful to date, with 58% calling them “extremely” or “very” successful

More than 40% said their business had clients in other Canadian provinces and
territories during the past year, while
20% said they had clients outside Canada and
the U.S.

B.C. ranks 2nd among the provinces (after Ontario) for number of self-employed Indigenous workers, accounting for 21% of the national total

Indigenous tourism–related businesses in B.C. increased 33% between 2014 and 2016

Source: First Peoples, first business: Indigenous entrepreneurs and reconciliation in B.C.