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.”
While the flight training curriculum of FNTI’s program may resemble just about any other in North America, the program and the institute itself 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.
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