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Indigenous airline founder to kick off Whistler tourism start-up program

Resilience and determination are key to success, says Teara Fraser
Big sky Teara Fraser, founder of Iskwew Air, will be speaking at the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre on Monday, Sept. 9. photo submitted

A Vancouver woman who holds the distinction of being the first Indigenous woman to start an airline in Canada will give the keynote speech for the Indigenous Tourism Start Up Program, which takes place in Whistler this fall.

Launched by the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) and the Whistler Centre for Sustainability, the program will seek to equip 14 budding Indigenous entrepreneurs with a plan—and inspiration—to launch their own tourism venture.

Teara Fraser launched her airline, Iskwew Air, in September 2018, gaining the attention of major media outlets, including the CBC.

She said it is important for entrepreneurs to understand that setbacks are par for the course when going into business.

"There are always challenges," said Fraser, who will speak at the SLCC next week. "I think the trick is what you do with the challenges. As an entrepreneur, you have to understand that it's not going to be easy, and that the challenges are coming.

"When they do arrive, meet them and greet them, and then figure out the best way forward."

Fraser said the original concept for Iskwew Air came to her in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, when she became interested in how she could help facilitate travel to Indigenous communities keen to grow their tourism market.

"I was exploring how I might take what I've learned in aviation, and my passion in aviation, and use it in the service of community members and Indigenous peoples," said Fraser. "I thought perhaps I could start an air service, connecting travellers to communities, and creating an experience right from the time people arrive at the airport."

That initial concept has morphed over time, however.

"The original vision was really focused on Indigenous tourism," said Fraser. "Now that's just a part of the vision."

Fraser said she would now like to facilitate corporate charters as well.

"I suppose the vision is bigger in terms of wanting to grow in a slow, steady way," she explained, adding that Iskwew Air has yet to provide any flights and is currently focusing on building relationships with Indigenous communities.

Fraser, who started an aerial surveying business in 2010, before selling it three years ago, was first inspired to become a pilot after taking part in an aerial tour in Botswana.

"The pilot was banking the aircraft and telling stories of the land and the trees and the animal," she said. "For the first time in my life, I was witnessing the land in a completely different way."

Seeing it from such a perspective can engender a greater appreciation for the environment and land, she added.

"What inspired me to fly is literally seeing the land from the air," she said. "If we can inspire people to have a connection to the land, and to hear the stories and the worldview and the wisdom of Indigenous people, I think our world could be different."

Indigenous tourism is thought to be a growth market, with Indigenous Tourism B.C. reporting that more than $705 million a year is now spent on Indigenous tourism in B.C.

Moreover, Fraser believes the sector is poised for further growth.

"Indigenous tourism is the fastest growing sector in Canada," she said. "People want to visit Canada and have an authentic experience of its rich culture and history—and that means Indigenous stories and wisdom."

Cheeying Ho, executive director of the Whistler Centre for Sustainability, said organizers wanted an inspiring figure to deliver the keynote talk.

"We are always looking for inspiring stories," said Ho.

While the Whistler Centre for Sustainability has facilitated entrepreneurship programs for years, 2018 was the first time it focused on serving Indigenous Canadians, launching the Squamish Lil'wat St'at'imc Business Start-up Program.

This year, the focus was refined even more, with the program highlighting tourism-related business concepts.

"We wanted to focus on something we feel has a growing market opportunity, and Indigenous tourism is growing," said Ho.

Fraser's free talk will take place on Monday, Sept. 9 from 6 to 9 p.m., at the SLCC. Register at