Iskwew

Wonder Woman Teara Fraser: Helping Others Soar

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RBG, AOC, Teara Fraser. Three of 18 women who are changing the world

Fraser founded Iskwew Air, an Indigenous-owned airline operating out of Vancouver International Airport

Canadian airline owner Teara Fraser is featured in the upcoming publication Wonder Women of History (illustration: Natasha Donovan/DC Comics).

Ask Teara Fraser what it’s like to be featured as a Wonder Woman of History and you can hear the smile light up her face. “Isn’t that wild?” she says with a laugh. Fraser is the founder of Iskwew Air out of Vancouver International Airport. She is a Métis woman out to change aviation. “It’s a little bit strange, actually. It’s a little bit surreal.”

The upcoming anthology Wonderful Women of History will present the real-life stories of remarkable women “who take up Wonder Woman’s iconic mantle,” DC said in announcing the work.

“I got an email from the writer Traci Sorell,” said Fraser whose voice betrays the awe she feels, “who let me know that the New York Times best-selling author Laurie Halse Anderson had read about me and decided to include me as she curated the list of Wonder Women of History for the DC Comics anthology.

“This was back in May or June,” said Fraser. “Then I forgot about it.” On September 3, Fraser got an email from the author with a link to the DC Comics announcement of its upcoming anthology. It was Fraser’s first look at the full list of women being featured. People so famous they are known by one name, such as Beyoncé. Others are so well known, simply entering their initials into Google produces the desired result. Think congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) or the recently-deceased Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG).

In complete awe

“To see my name beside the likes of AOC, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elizabeth Warren, Serena Williams, Beyoncé, I’m like whaaat?” There is no word that encapsulates her feelings.

Canadian airline owner Teara Fraser is featured in the upcoming anthology Wonderful Women of History (photo: DC Comics).

“How did?” she stammers. “I don’t even know… I don’t even… As you can hear, clearly, I mean this is now many days later, and I’m still in complete awe.”

“What I really appreciate, and what I’m really excited about, is seeing a list of change makers like that who are examples of people who are dismantling oppressive systems. And I think that was what Wonder Woman was all about,” said Fraser. Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, 30 years before Fraser was born. “I think that’s the work of everyone right now is to dismantle the systems that aren’t working for any people.”

“I admire what she is doing so much”

Iskwew first flew in October 2019 under the vision of “Connecting people to each other and to the land.” It operates an eight-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain on charter services throughout British Columbia. Fitting with Iskwew’s Cree – and Fraser’s Métis – roots, the aircraft is named the Sweetgrass Warrior.

A big part of Fraser’s mission is to open up opportunities, particularly in Indigenous communities that have for too long been far off the beaten path. The message resonates in a time when larger airlines, such as Air Canada, have cut back service to smaller communities as a result of the pandemic.

“I admire what she is doing so much,” said author Traci Sorell in an email. This is her first foray into young adult graphic novels. “I did a quick Google and social media search on Teara. I realized we were already following each other on Twitter. From my research, I saw all the wonderful work she is doing.”

Wonder Woman: Dedication and perseverance

To tell Fraser’s story, Sorell worked with illustrator Natasha Donovan, who, like Fraser, is Métis. The two had just wrapped up a collaboration to tell the story of Mary Golda Ross, a Cherokee engineer who would become the first woman to work at Lockheed’s Skunk Works, designing fighter jets.

Donovan cut her teeth on technical drawings and airplanes on that previous project. Telling Fraser’s story hit closer to home.

“It was oddly familiar to me in that I’m also Métis and I grew up in Vancouver,” said Donovan, who now lives in Washington State. “I have never had the opportunity to work on a story that had so many surprising connections.”

Despite depicting Fraser in a graphic novel, the two have never met. Donovan relied on photos and Youtube videos to get her drawings just right. But she really wanted to convey what it took for Fraser to succeed.

“It was the dedication and perseverance that went into bringing something like this, not to be too punny, but off the ground,” said Natasha Donovan. “It’s a space that historically has not included a lot of Indigenous people and especially not Indigenous women.”

Always in balance

Beyoncé is one of the Wonderful Women of History alongside other big names from business, arts, politics, and the law (photo: DC Comics).

During the pandemic, as other business dried up, Fraser has focussed on flying supplies, tools, and personal protective equipment to remote – particularly Indigenous – communities. Iskwew had only five months from its founding to the moment COVID decimated aviation. Perhaps for that reason, Fraser sees a lot of room to innovate.

“Innovation means doing things differently,” she said. “And if I’m really honest with you, and I’ve said it already, innovation means truth, justice, and equality. And it means ecological, social, racial, and economic justice. Innovation means taking down all of the things that we thought before and being open to, like, completely recreating.”

“From an Indigenous perspective, we must always be in reciprocity,” said Fraser. “Things must always be in balance. It’s part of our responsibility to be in reciprocity, to offer what we can and to ask for what we need. It’s important to give back, it’s important to be in reciprocity with communities.”

Late last week, Iskwew unveiled the fruits of a partnership with the Tlaoquiaht Tribal Parks on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “It’s the perfect escape for British Columbians who are keen to get away,” reads the campaign. It’s part of a strategy to get people travelling within their own province since COVID means they likely won’t be going further afield.

‘Disrupt everything’

“Let’s disrupt everything,” said Fraser. “Let’s honour the past and lead the present and steward the future. This idea of continuous improvement is really looking at everything all the time and seeing, what else? What are we not seeing? What else is possible?”

In normal times, change comes slowly in aviation. Regulations guide and control every action and safety guides every decision. But in times of crisis, the industry can show remarkable agility. Think of the security measures enacted in response to 9/11. This may be one of those moments.

“Aviation could be better served with a deeper sense of innovation and equity and diversity, without question,” said Fraser. “I’ve seen incredible leadership and innovation from the regulator, from Transport Canada. Appropriate responsiveness, innovation. I think that without exception, the entire world and our industry must learn how to innovate and adapt.”

‘The story I’m determined to have’

Being a charter operation allows Iskwew to be more nimble than a network carrier, to adapt more quickly. Still, it’s hard for a small company to be heard.

“There are so many stories out there that are going untold,” said the illustrator Donovan. “I had not heard of Teara even though I’m from Vancouver and it was really, really exciting to learn about her work.

“As a person who is working on my own to create a small business as an illustrator,” she said, “it was a relief to hear about someone who has created something so big just by herself basically, with the support of her family.”

“It’s going to be a slow recovery for our industry,” said Fraser. “As an Indigenous, woman-owned business, we can survive this economic and social crisis. I plan to look back on this time and say ‘remember when I tried to start up an airline and then the COVID crisis global pandemic hit and I didn’t know if I would make it? And then I did?’ That’s the story I’m determined to have.”

Wonderful Women of History hits stores December 1.

Editor’s Note: Since its initial announcement, the title of the anthology has been changed from Wonder Women of History to Wonderful Women of History. The text has been updated to reflect the change.

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