Air Canada Crew Share Their Historic Flight Experience

A Major International Airliner First

Air Canada marked National Indigenous Peoples Day by proudly highlighting the achievements and contributions of its Indigenous employees. On June 21, an Air Canada jet was flown by an all-Indigenous crew of two pilots and nine flight attendants for the first time in the company’s 54-year history. Passengers aboard Flight AC185 from Toronto to Vancouver flew in Air Canada’s flagship Boeing 787 Dream liner also served by an all-Indigenous ground crew.

Marie France Roy is Air Canada’s Official Languages & Diversity Partnership Manager. She says the all-Indigenous crew idea came about in 2018 after Air Canada decided to proudly highlight the achievements and contributions of its Indigenous employees.

 “We decided this event would coincide with the June 21st National Indigenous Day celebrations, and really from there it was a matter of finding out and planning the Indigenous crew within our Air Canada team,” said Roy.

Crew members spoke with First Nation’s Drum to recall their experience aboard this historic flight. 

Air Canada In-flight Service Director Karen Chapman is a Coast Salish from the Cowichan Tribes on Vancouver Island who’s been flying with Air Canada for 19 years. Chapman was excited when she learned the news that Air Canada was considering the possibility of doing a flight with an all-Indigenous crew for National Indigenous Day.

“We have many proud Indigenous colleagues that want to represent our company and our communities, and what an amazing way to do it. The day they called me to say we were going to be able to do it was one of the best days of my career,” said Chapman. “I was extremely grateful for all the people at Air Canada that made it possible. It was a team effort.”

Chapman says her fellow Indigenous co-workers are all involved within their communities. 

“They participate in Pow Wows, the Longhouse, Sun Dance, Sweat Lodge, and more. They’re a very knowledgeable team that sheds light on many different aspects of the Indigenous cultures.”

Chapman says the crew received a lot of positive feedback from passengers on board their “special flight.” 

“I actually do get asked quite often what nationality I am, and passengers are always intrigued about Indigenous culture,” said Chapman. “I’ve also been told by Indigenous passengers that they are proud to see me in the position I’m in within my company.  It makes me even more proud.” Chapman continued, “Many passengers told us they were so happy we were doing this flight and that they could be a part of the occasion. 

“One passenger had tears in his eyes after First Officer Lewis Yesno made his ‘welcome announcement’ in his Ojibway language. We saw passengers shedding tears while our crew was welcomed into the boarding area by the Musqueam dancers once we arrived into YVR. It was very touching to hear the positive comments and see the emotion.”

Chapman says that making her arrival announcement over the PA to the passengers was an amazing feeling. “Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Vancouver International Airport, located on the traditional lands of the Musqueam people.”

First Pilot Lewis Yesno is from Eabametoong First Nations in Northern Ontario. Lewis says he’s always wanted to fly the skies since he was a little boy. 

“This position has allowed me to travel the world, see other cultures, and experience things I could only dream of when I was a kid,” said Yesno. “Growing up on the reserve, I’d see the planes far up in the sky with the airplane exhaust trail, and I would tell my cousins and friends, ‘One day I am going to be up there flying those planes.’ I always knew that is what I wanted to do when I grew-up.”

His advice to young Indigenous people who want to become a pilot is to never give up on their aspirations to become whatever they want.

“With perseverance, one can achieve anything,” said Yesno, who first flew on a familiarization flight after attending a Geraldton Composite High School Career-Day Fair in September 1979 and then acquired his pilot’s license in March 1983.

He says that Air Canada is a very-diversified company that hires people from all backgrounds from all over the world and is very happy to be a part of the Air Canada Family.

“The all- Indigenous crewed flight from Toronto to Vancouver was awesome and a once-in-a-life- time experience,” said Yesno.  “I’m very proud to have been a part of it.” 

Members of the business community also expressed their thoughts on the all-Indigenous flight crew – the first by any major international airliner.

“Leading by example, Air Canada is first out of the gate to deploy an entirely Indigenous-operated flight and acknowledging the contributions of their Indigenous employees. This is an unprecedented move to advance Indigenous participation and business initiatives and will motivate other companies to support long-term sustainable opportunities that enhance our economy,” says JP Gladu, President and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB).

Sharon Sunshine is a member of the Fishing Lake First Nation and a Saulteaux Cree in Saskatchewan. She’s worked in the airline industry for over 20 years and joined the Air Canada family almost three years ago.  Prior to Air Canada, she worked for smaller carriers and as a trustee for the Fishing Lake 1907 Surrender Trust

“I always wanted to work and fly with Air Canada because they are a global airline, and the opportunities are endless,” Sunshine says. “Working at Air Canada, we have the ability to challenge ourselves and grow in our professional development. For example, I take part in career fairs to promote Indigenous recruitment. 

“We go out to the communities and discuss our roles as flight attendants. We answer questions, and our goal is to inspire future flight attendants or pilots, or anyone who would like to work at Air Canada.  Another example is we have language courses available so that we may learn French and feel confident with basic phrases. There are so many different special assignments that we can apply for, and it is an exciting time to be a part of this great company.”

Sunshine says her thoughts on the Indigenous flight was one of enormous pride.

“To take part in something so momentous really is a highlight in my career. As flight attendants, we all shared the same narrative, which is being proud to represent the First Nations community and to be role models not only for our people but for corporate Canada.  Air Canada really allowed us to showcase that pride, and I am so grateful for that opportunity. The passenger feedback from that day was everyone kept congratulating us as crew members and Air Canada for allowing the event to take place.” 

Sunshine says that passengers asked her about her Fishing Lake First Nation, her language,family, and the origin of her name.

“There was genuine interest and excitement that was palpable,” Sunshine said. “For any Indigenous person who is considering a career in aviation, I would say ‘Go for it!’ You get to work with people from around the world and learn so much about their culture, and they learn so much about yours.”