When a massive fire destroyed its hangar and aircraft fleet February 24, the future of First Nations Technical Institute’s (FNTI) popular aviation program looked uncertain. However, the aerospace community’s generous support has enabled students to continue their flight training while the school recovers.
“Everybody started reaching out and we executed this plan fairly quickly so now all our students are flying, both on and off campus,” said FNTI Aviation Dean Jo-Anne Tabobandung. “It was very daunting to even decide what the next steps would be, taking stock of not only what we lost but, more importantly, what we’re grateful for.”
Constructed to train pilots during World War II, the hangar collapsed in flames only minutes after responders from multiple fire departments arrived on the scene. The disaster destroyed 13 airplanes, five of which had been recently purchased, along with FNTI’s maintenance operations and dispatch services.
The estimated loss is in the tens of millions of dollars, but the school is grateful nobody was injured. Winds drew the flames away from nearby student residence and other campus buildings. Nine students in residence were taken to a local hotel where they were provided mental health and cultural support.
“We have a huge student support section,” Tabobandung said. “Our cultural advisor provided sharing circles, something I personally needed to start moving forward. These ceremonies reinforced our strength. Indigenous people are inherently hardwired to be resilient – that’s how we roll.”
Located in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, the country’s only Indigenous aviation college program has trained aspiring pilots from across Canada since 1989. As a student in one of the program’s first classes, Tabobandung met her husband and was married in the hangar destroyed in the fire.
Less than a week after the disaster, students near graduation were sent to Cornwall and Kingston to complete their training. With the support of industry partners, FNTI arranged for students who couldn’t return to campus to continue their flight training closer to their home communities.
“The aviation sector is such a small community, we all contribute to filling that critical pilot shortage,” explained Tabobandung. “WestJet is flying students, me and a cultural advisor out to Medicine Hat this summer where three of our female Indigenous students are currently flight training.”
By the end of April, FNTI had leased two Cessna-172 aircraft from Seneca College in Peterborough and another from a local operator in Kingston to train 20 students on campus. From the ashes of tragedy, new relationships are being formed that may cultivate long-term benefits.
“The outreach and compassion exhibited by Seneca to ensure that we can complete our students’ flight training is extraordinary,” said FNTI President Suzanne Brant. “We would like to share our gratitude to Seneca and their compassionate, enthusiastic and friendly staff.”
In May, Brant unveiled a proposal for a new FNTI that would consolidate its two campuses with an academic and administration building, new air hangar and student accommodations, renovated runway and taxi, and Indigenous Learning Centre. Within a decade, this proposal is projected to double or triple enrolment for FNTI’s numerous Indigenous-focused programs.
“All of FNTI’s programs are oversubscribed,” confirmed Cathie Findlay, FNTI’s Government Relations and Communications Director. “Aviation is not alone in that area – Indigenous people want to come to school at an Indigenous institute. We’ve had to limit the intake in the aviation program for a few years now. That’s not due to the fire – that’s just the demand.”
FNTI’s promotion of an inclusive learning environment leads to a much higher proportion of women than in the overall industry. While Tabobandung remembers being the only female during her studies, Indigenous women now represent nearly half of enrolment, including seven of 13 students in the most recent cohort.
“When everyone feels welcome, naturally more women apply,” Tabobandung suggested. “When someone goes solo for their first flight or gets their licence, we celebrate their achievement through Facebook. Indigenous youth looking at these pictures think ‘she looks like me, maybe this is something I can do.’”
Former Tyendinaga Chief Earl Hill created FNTI’s aviation program after recognizing how few First Nations pilots were serving remote northern Ontario communities in the 1980s. Now, most FNTI students come from remote communities across Canada, and feed the air industry with talent.
“The major airlines hire from northern airlines, [and] then those need to hire,” explained Tabobandung. “It seemed like there was a lull during COVID, but the shortage didn’t go away. We feed that need. Instead of pilots who go north for 18 months, we have pilots from these communities who go home to fly, and they stay.”
While the three-year aviation technology program includes all the essentials for pursuing a pilot’s licence, it also features courses in winter survival, cultural studies, and Indigenous worldviews. Cultural advisers share Indigenous teachings throughout the program.
“We do a lot more than train people how to fly airplanes,” asserted Tabobandung. “Knowing yourself and understanding where you come from in your culture helps inform decisions. Decision-making is key when you have the responsibility of flying an airplane with cargo and passengers in the back.”
Patrick Quinn is an Ottawa-based reporter with the Local Journalism Initiative.