Using Indigenous knowledge and new technologies to decolonize the skies

nothing left45:26decolonize the sky

For decades, many remote Aboriginal communities in Canada have relied on the aerospace industry for everything from cargo transportation to mail and medical supplies.

Evolving technologies such as the use of drones are creating opportunities for Indigenous communities to become more self-reliant by using the skies as their highway.

“It’s really a decolonization effort that puts power back in our hands so we can again assert our own self-determination of how it plays out in our region,” Jacob Taylor said.

Taylor is a member of the Curve Lake First Nation, about 150 kilometers northeast of Toronto, and is the founder and CEO of Indigenous Aerospace.

His vision is to help Aboriginal communities control the movement of goods and medicines through the use of drones.

Help Aboriginal people help themselves

Taylor’s journey into the industry began at the Moose, Ontario facility, working in educational programming for remote communities.

He said he’s aware of the logistical challenges facing remote First Nations communities in northern Ontario, which are mostly accessible by air.

In 2016, an article The late CBC reporter Jody Porter’s story of a woman who died after running out of oxygen at a Webequie First Nation community care station prompted him to take action.

“The nearest oxygen tank is 70 kilometers away, as straight as a crow flies,” Taylor said. Since it’s nighttime when tanks are depleted, helicopters can’t fly – but drones can.

“The remote-controlled aircraft system turns out to be a fascinating concept to address some of the critical care logistics in the region.”

That started Taylor’s effort to try to figure out how to regularly flood essential supplies into communities that desperately need these services. But he’s also interested in finding a way to help the community help themselves.

The drone industry was, and still is, a nascent industry. Taylor said he didn’t want to see the Indigenous community miss out on opportunities to be leaders in the industry.

In July 2021, Indigenous Aerospace launched with the goal of helping Indigenous communities develop drone programs by providing education and employment.

Jacob Taylor from Curve Lake First Nation stands smiling with his drone controller in hand
Jacob Taylor envisions Indigenous people using drone technology to solve logistical problems facing remote communities. (Jacob Taylor/Facebook)

“I benefit from delivery, and the community benefits from delivery—together we can achieve greater things than anyone could do in isolation,” Taylor said.

“No treaty was signed for the skies, so Aboriginal people have an inherent right to participate in the aerospace industry.”

He said drones have already proven useful in some of the communities he has worked with; they are using the technology for search and rescue missions.

“This kind of work that the locals are doing is heroic, so people take a lot of pride in that,” Taylor said.

“There is no real silver bullet, one-size-fits-all solution [all] Our community – we have to get the right people for the right places, and the best people come from there. “

United Coastal Communities

On the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, a small airline is making a big difference for an isolated Inuit community.

Borealis provides vital passenger and freight services to communities in the Nunakiavut region, which are only accessible by air, water or ice during the winter months. The airline also recently made history by flying an all-female Inuit crew.

Zoie Michelin, Air Borealis’ co-pilot, was part of this historic moment.

Zoie Michelin standing next to the Twin Otter
Zoie Michelin, co-pilot for Air Borealis, is proud to bring the community together through Nunatsiavut. (Zoe Michelin/Facebook)

She is proud to help serve and connect communities in her traditional territory.

The airline’s fleet consists of Twin Otter aircraft with 19 seats. Small aircraft bring passengers and pilots together, adding a very personal touch.

Michelin says having an Inuit crew means a lot to passengers.

“People often leave comments telling us how proud and inspired they are to see female Inuk pilots flying over our soil,” she said. “It’s really inspiring to hear that we are role models for young Indigenous children.”

Aviation with an Indigenous Worldview

Teara Fraser is a proud Métis woman and a leader in Canada’s aviation industry.

She went from being a pilot, to founding an aerial photography company, to launching her own airline, Iskwew Air, at Vancouver International Airport.

Iskwew means woman in Cree language. Fraser said the choice of the name for her airline was a deliberate move to reclaim language and matriarchy in a male-dominated industry with underrepresented Indigenous peoples.

She believes that an Indigenous worldview will revolutionize the aviation industry by helping to lead the way to a more sustainable future and a healthier relationship with the earth, the sky and each other.

“When I think about decolonization, I think about how we dismantle systems that no longer work,” Fraser said.

Teara Fraser founded Iskwew Air with a vision to connect people to the land and bring travelers to Aboriginal communities. (Jeffrey Borsdett)

The Indigenous worldview centers on human responsibility for all our relationships, from each other to the land, sky and water.

“I think about us rebuilding systems that put people at the center, and I think about Indigenous peoples leading the way in this innovative space.”

Fraser’s vision for the future of aviation also specifically sees Indigenous women in leadership roles.

“It means respecting matriarchal and female leadership in a unique way, with a focus on caring and community.”

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