By Michael Boriero
Melissa Haney was the first female Inuk pilot to captain a Bombardier Dash-8 turboprop-powered regional airliner with Air Inuit, and now she is the first to be given command of the powerful Boeing 737, which carries more speed, cargo, and passengers.
She took over the controls of the hulking twinjet aircraft on Sept. 1. And when The Record spoke to Haney, who resides in Bedford, she had already completed five flights. She has always dreamed of flying a Boeing 737, but the airline only recently obtained one.
“Air Inuit didn’t have jets when I started as a pilot, so I didn’t think I’d be a captain on a 737 one day, but I knew it was a goal, and I knew that I had a number of steps to reach before I could become captain,” said Haney.
However, while she revelled in her latest accomplishment, she also felt privileged to still have a job throughout the pandemic. Many of her colleagues and friends had to put their careers on hold, or find other work, due to a nationwide partial shutdown in the airline industry.
“What else was really hard was that I have a lot of friends who are in different companies, not just with Air Inuit, but other Canadian companies and they stopped working, so you kind of feel bad because you still have your job […] It just kind of puts a perspective on things,” she said.
Air Inuit is an essential service, Haney explained, so they never really stopped flying, in fact, they have been expanding, and acquiring more planes. There are no roads that connect Northern and Southern Quebec, she continued, all goods come by boat or plane.
The airline brings hospital and grocery store workers up north, and they also provide medivac services to the entire area, transporting sick and injured individuals to Montreal, where they can meet with a specialist. They have been a crucial link throughout the pandemic.
“We offer scheduled flights every day from Montreal to Nunavik and we also bring up cargo. In the summertime there are the boats that go up with marginal amounts of cargo, but we’re bringing up perishable items, vaccines, [and] medicine,” Haney said.
She has tremendous pride working for Air Inuit. Her father is from Inukjuak, and she grew up in the small northern village until her family moved to the Eastern Townships when she was eight years old. Haney said she feels like she is giving back to her community every day.
She also believes that she can be an inspiration to many Indigenous children living in communities outside of Nunavik. Haney is part of a small percentage of women that went on to become a pilot. It is a tough industry to crack, especially for an Inuk woman.
According to Haney, women in aviation make up roughly five to six per cent of the industry worldwide. Meanwhile, about 12 per cent of Air Inuit’s pilot staff are women. Haney works with several women’s aviation groups, like the Canadian Ninety-Nines, addressing the situation.
“If somebody asks you what you did on your test, and you say I got 12 per cent, you know, it’s not really a good number. It’s something that the industry is trying to change and promote women to come into these careers, but it really is a very low number,” said Haney.
She wants to show young women that they can go on to have successful careers in any field. They do not need to be hampered by family. Women can have children and still go on to have a fulfilling career, she said, whether it is as a pilot, engineer, lawyer, or doctor.
While Haney fights to create a more inclusive industry, it wasn’t always her first choice in profession. She went to Massey Vanier High School, where she was told the best thing to do was go on to cegep and then university, but school was never her passion.