Life in the Air: FNTI’s Flight Students Fly Home To Serve

First Peoples' flight training is based on the indigenous "way of knowing."

On a hilltop overlooking a river canyon somewhere in Canada many generations ago, a First Nations elder might have watched an eagle soar gracefully along on the winds and wondered what it would be like if he too could fly. That would respect his Indigenous belief that humans are deeply connected to everything they see—the wind, water, animals, sky and the Earth itself.

Fast-forward to today, and the First Peoples’ Aviation Technology Program at Ontario, Canada’s First Nations Technical Institute is making that wish a reality. For many of the flight students in the program, their ultimate goal is not to end up with an airline job; instead, they desire to become certified by Transport Canada so they can go back home and serve their communities as commercial pilots.

To better understand why an FNTI aviation-technology student learns in a different way than most any other flight student, we first must understand what “First Nations” means. “In Canada,” says Jo-Anne Tabobandung, a Bear Clan member of the Mohawk Nation and FNTI’s dean of aviation, “the term ‘Indigenous’ includes people who identify as having First Nation, Metis or Inuit ancestry, so in the USA, the term ‘Native American’ could be compared to First Nations.”

Doris Ipeelee is one of the commercial flight students at FNTI. Courtesy: FNTI

While the flight training curriculum of FNTI’s program may resemble just about any other in North America, the program and the institute it self have been designed to serve the specific educational and cultural needs of their First Nations students.

The traditions, language, heritage and strong spiritual connections of First Nations people surround every task and lesson and allow students to become immersed in a culture most have known from childhood.

For the vast majority of FNTI aviation-technology students who learn to fly professionally in the program’s fleet of nine Cessna 172s and a twin-engine Piper Aztec and Seminole, becoming licensed pilots means the students will use their new skills to fly people and supplies into extremely rural First Nations communities, including some that can be served only from the air.

“Our learners come from across the country with a goal to return home and serve their communities,” Tabobandung says. “For these students, a career as a pilot can make a significant impact on the recent graduate, their families and communities. They are role models in their communities because they have achieved the goal of becoming a commercial pilot.”

The Indigenous “tools of the trade” are unlike those found at other flight programs. Courtesy: FNTI

How an FNTI aviation-technology student learns to fly is based on the Indigenous peoples’ “way of knowing,” explains Ka’nahsohon Kevin Deer, FNTI’s director of Indigenous knowledge quality learning and teaching excellence. “This way of knowing comes from our intimate way of understanding that in order to be a human being, we must first regard everything as an equal living being within the sacred cycle and web of life. First Nations students are exposed to the natural world at an early age with an understanding that they must try as much as possible to live in harmony with the natural world.

“To address this, our aviation program ensures that cultural advisors are present in every program delivery to share Indigenous knowledge and teachings with our students to help them to develop into well-balanced human beings. This will then ensure that our students who become pilots will make the best possible informed decisions,” he says.

When you ponder the intense connection a First Nations aviation-technology student has with nature, it might be easy to assume that they would have something in their DNA that makes them acutely aware of the weather. That is not the case, Deer says. “Our typical student does not come to class with a hard-wired respect for weather. However, if they are raised in a traditional knowledge setting, they will understand that the various wind spirits are necessary to promote health and growth for plants, animals and humans. Due to the power of our ‘grandfathers,’ the Thunder Beings and the winds, we believe that they also need to be respected, constantly acknowledged, and thanked for the work they do so that life can continue on Earth. If not, then it’s understood that we will never be a match to their awesome power and will be at their mercy.”

The students will use their new skills to fly people and supplies into rural First Nations communities.

Tabobandung describes how FNTI’s aviation technology program began to serve First Nations students in the mid 1980s through a partnership with the Tyendinaga Mohawk Council. “After FNTI executives working in Northern Ontario recognized how few First Nations pilots were serving the remote Indigenous communities, Chief Earl Hill began developing the FNTI aviation-technology program in 1989 at what is now called the Tyendinaga aerodrome,” Tabobandung says. “Since Chief Hill started the program, FNTI has increased Indigenous participation in the aviation sector.

Recently, we had two more Cessna 172s delivered and are training some of our Indigenous graduates to become flight instructors to teach in our program as an investment in our future and theirs.”

When it comes to eliminating gender inequalities among First Nations pilots, Tabobandung is proud that, today, the program has close to 40 percent enrollment of Indigenous women, though that was not always the case. “I was a student in the first aviation course offered at the historic Mohawk Airport in 1990,” she explains, “and I was also the only female. The challenges of being a female in a gender-imbalanced industry presented obstacles, and I had to work harder to just fit in. Over the past few decades, we have worked to develop a better student experience at FNTI by building and maintaining an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome.”

That “inclusive environment” was put on display in late 2020 when an otherwise typical flight test showed how FNTI’s efforts to include more women in the program were paying off. On that flight, it was the first time in the program’s history that a female Indigenous student, Rainbow Ford, was training with flight instructor Daniella Petitti and being examined by pilot examiner Tabobandung.

The First Peoples’ Aviation Technology Program at FNTI spans generations by teaching modern aviation techniques, avionics, theory and principles while respecting the past. That First Nations elder who many generations ago watched as the eagle soared across the sky would be amazed at what today’s FNTI flight students are accomplishing from the left seat of a Skyhawk. Indeed, a straight line can be drawn from the Cessna to the eagle— the Indigenous “way of knowing” and what it means to fly.

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