As a young girl in Mistissini, Rita Rabbitskin would watch the bush planes flying overhead in wonder, dreaming of one day taking to the skies herself. She pursued her goal with unwavering dedication, completing advanced courses down south while giving birth to two sons and earning the necessary credentials to become a pilot.
“The initial dream was to be a bush pilot,” Rabbitskin told the Nation. “Things kind of veered off from there – in a good way. It was worth it. If it’s what you want, and you work hard at it, you’ll get there eventually.”
Rabbitskin became a pilot for Air Creebec 12 years ago, which provides her an ideal work-life balance and enables her to sleep at home every night. She averages about a dozen flights each month, which often entail long 13-hour days.
Air Creebec first took flight in 1982, audaciously carving out its own space in the aviation industry to further the Cree quest for self-determination in recognition that air transportation was necessary to connect Eeyou Istchee’s far-flung communities with each other and the outside world. The airline has continuously expanded operations and now operates 19 aircraft with nearly 50 pilots.
Rabbitskin is one of only two pilots from Eeyou Istchee and one of four female pilots with the company. As global demand for air travel sharply rises, improving diversity in the industry is seen as critical to addressing a growing shortage of pilots. According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots (ISWAP), only 5% of airline pilots are currently women.
“I would definitely like to see more females and Cree people at Air Creebec,” said Rabbitskin. “We’re slowly growing. It’s changing, the attitudes and all that. It’s becoming more welcoming for females.”
Rabbitskin appreciates the support she received from other female pilots when she started flying and now tries to provide similar encouragement when a new woman comes in. She humbly downplays the challenges she encountered moving up in a male-dominated industry, acknowledging that everyone has their own unique circumstances.
“The worst thing you can do is compare yourself to other people,” Rabbitskin asserted. “It comes with a lot of hard work, but you find the balance if you believe in yourself. The challenge is when you start working for an airline. You have to learn their operations, the new aircraft, their routes. You always have to be ahead of the game.”
After finishing high school in Mistissini, she attended John Abbott College in Montreal to take the necessary physics and math courses before transferring to Laurentide Aviation, Canada’s oldest commercial flight school. Pregnant with her first child during her studies, she returned home to give birth to a healthy boy and was back in class two days later.
When people ask her how long she’s been flying, Rabbitskin jokes that she just asks her son how old he is. She returned to Mistissini to work as a bush pilot but remained restless and embarked upon helicopter flight training in Quebec City to learn to fly helicopters, now pregnant with her second son.
“It was supposed to be the ultimate career I was planning,” she said. “It didn’t work with two babies, being gone for days. I lived alone with the boys. My husband lived up north all this time so he would come every other weekend. You always have to remind yourself this is what you wanted; this is what it requires. All that work was worth it.”
Rabbitskin’s path led her to Air Creebec, where the learning never stops. There are specific training requirements for each aircraft and route, more demanding procedures to follow, and challenges due to the unpredictable nature of northern weather.
“Great Whale is always more challenging,” Rabbitskin explained. “It’s always the one that has more weather issues – the winds and the fog. I live in Chisasibi now – there’s fog from the river. Sometimes we do the Ontario side. We have our regular schedules and hospital runs. Then we have the mines too, the Éléonore and Stornoway diamond mines.”
From Air Creebec’s reliable Dash aircraft to the heavy Otter bush planes, Rabbitskin appreciates adapting to the realities of each type of flying. Whenever she is back home in Mistissini she always visits with local bush pilots. Although that career path didn’t fit her life at the time, she imagines one day retiring to their more leisurely and solitary pace.
“I can’t wait for Mistissini to have an airport,” she shared. “I’ll be the first one to land there, for sure. Hopefully one day they will.”
While Rabbitskin has grown accustomed to her status as a pioneer in her field, there are an increasing range of resources to help today’s aspiring pilots. Last summer, the First Nations Technical Institute (FNTI) in Tyendinaga Mohawk territory hosted its first annual Indigenous Youth Aviation Camp.
For a week in July, 12 Indigenous youth from across Canada attended ground school, simulator sessions, C-172 training flights and various cultural events. Air Creebec was among the airlines contributing to this inaugural edition, in which 10 out of 12 participants were female.
“Indigenous peoples and females are critical to building capacity, averting skills shortages and creating sustainability to the aviation sector,” stated Jo-Anne Tabobandung, dean of aviation. “Moreover, pilot shortages are exacerbated in rural and remote communities. FNTI is a driver to overcome this challenge seeing as our graduates usually wish to return to their home communities.”
Rabbitskin seems comfortable being a role model to this next generation and sometimes attends career fairs to share advice with young people. Her mere presence as a successful Indigenous female pilot is an eye-opener for many.
“I like it when young people approach me,” Rabbitskin said. “I grew up exactly like these kids back home. I make them realize they can do it. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it. If you’re determined, the sky’s the limit.”