THOMPSON — A 72-seat Calm Air ATR twin prop dwarfed the tiny Diamond-Eclipse training plane at the Calm Air hangar at the Thompson Airport on Friday where there was a celebration for the launch of the Atik Mason Indigenous Pilot Pathway.
Many of the 11 successful applicants – all of whom will have all their costs covered including per diems, paid trips home and an elder on hand for support – had family and friends on hand for the festive occasion.
The pilot trainees were selected from 170 applicants from across the North. They have already spent a few hours in the air in the program that started earlier in the month and is fully funded to the tune of about $1 million per year by Exchange Income Corp., which owns Calm Air, Perimeter Aviation, Keewatin Air and a number of other regional airlines in Manitoba and across the country.
Garrison Settee, the grand chief of MKO, whose office helped make the final selections, said, "You are the cream of the crop. We are all counting on you to succeed. We know you will succeed."
The 11 trainees come from seven communities from as far North as South Indian Lake. At least three are from St. Theresa Point First Nation. There are four women in the group including one single mother. Four are parents of young children.
“I feel like I just won the lottery.” — Pilot trainee Zach Wood, from St. Theresa Point.
Nathan Beardy, 41, is the oldest. Originally from Cross Lake, he has lived in Thompson and worked for Manitoba Hydro for 13 years. He knows he’s lucky because he can remain living with his young family while enrolled in the four month program.
A big burly fellow, with a huge smile and a long braided pony tail, he said he’s wanted to fly ever since he was a kid.
"But growing up as a young person we were never financially well off enough to be able to do this," he said. "I figured it was dream that was never going to happen."
Looking at the tiny training plane that features newly applied graphics by an Indigenous artist, he said, "I got goose bumps on my arms when I saw the plane with the decals yesterday."
Kyla Flett, from St. Theresa Point, is the youngest at 18. She just finished high school.
Asked if her family could have afforded pilot training on their own – something that can cost as much as $100,000, she laughed and said, "No. Not at all!"
“But growing up as a young person we were never financially well off enough to be able to do this. I figured it was dream that was never going to happen.” — Nathan Beardy
Zach Wood, 26, also from St. Theresa Point, was enrolled in a bachelor of science program at the University of Manitoba when he applied and was accepted.
"I feel like I just won the lottery," he said.
Wood who spoke only Oji-Cree when he moved to Winnipeg with his grandparents who raised him when he was eight, said, "I have two children. I’m always looking for ways to be the best father I can so they can look up to me. I did not have a father growing up."
The personal pilot training program is part of a larger effort at the EIC airlines to attract more Indigenous pilots to better serve the many Indigenous communities they fly into. But it is also a very conscious act of economic reconciliation.
EIC’s chief executive officer, Mike Pyle, said, "It has been amazing the kind of buy-in we’ve had from everyone in the organization. We had eight weeks to put the whole program together."
Not only is EIC thoroughly engaged with Northern communities, it’s also fully capable of training pilots as it owns its own school, Moncton Flight College in New Brunswick. Three trainers are in from Moncton along with the two tiny aircraft that took four days to fly to Thompson.
Settee said the program, named after Atik Mason, from St. Theresa Point who received scholarship from Perimeter and graduated from the commercial pilot program last year and now flies for Perimeter, is a great example of reconciliation in action rather than just rhetoric.
"Northern Indigenous residents have been on the periphery, marginalized," he said. "This is an example of our youth stepping into the arena. It may be incremental steps, but nevertheless they are significant steps."
Jonas Flett, no relation to Kyla but also from St. Theresa Point, said his wife and three daughters were not able to make it for the party, but said they are very supportive.
"The whole community is supportive," he said. "They’re all rooting for us."
Mason’s experience has informed the current program ensuring that cultural sensitivities are applied. Many are away from home for the first time which is why EIC decided to set up in Thompson closer to home for the Northerners, rather than send everyone to Moncton.
After the participants get their personal pilot licences, they will then have the chance to go to Moncton for their commercial licence – which again will cover all costs.
Pyle said considerations are already underway to establish a permanent pilot college in Thompson.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.