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2 female Inuit pilots made history flying together. They hope it's a start

Zoe Kroonenburg, left, and Melissa Haney, right, snapped a photo together on Feb. 6. It was the first time either of them had flown a plane alongside a fellow female Inuk pilot.  (Submitted by Melissa Haney - image credit)
Zoe Kroonenburg, left, and Melissa Haney, right, snapped a photo together on Feb. 6. It was the first time either of them had flown a plane alongside a fellow female Inuk pilot. (Submitted by Melissa Haney - image credit)

Melissa Haney and Zoe Kroonenburg have flown from Montreal to Puvirnituq, in the northern Quebec region of Nunavik, hundreds of times.

But Tuesday's two-and-a-half-hour cargo flight, with Haney as the captain and Kroonenburg as first officer aboard the Air Inuit Boeing 737, felt different.

It was the first time either of them had flown alongside someone who looked like them.

"Representation does matter," said Haney.

"It's something that I've been waiting for for a long time — to have two female Inuit pilots up front. So I was excited for this day to come."

It took 20 years for Haney.

Air Inuit, says Kroonenburg and Haney's latest trip north, was the first time a female Inuk captain and copilot flew a 737 for Air Inuit.
Air Inuit, says Kroonenburg and Haney's latest trip north, was the first time a female Inuk captain and copilot flew a 737 for Air Inuit.

Air Inuit says Kroonenburg and Haney's latest trip north was the first time a female Inuk captain and copilot flew a 737 together for Air Inuit. (Submitted by Zoe Kroonenburg)

When she started flying in 2004 for Air Inuit, Haney was the only female Inuk pilot — and the first ever female Air Inuit captain. Now, there are four female Inuit pilots among the 220 pilots working for the airline.

"Throughout the years, others have come and gone, but this is the most we've ever been in the company at the same time. And there's always been Inuit pilots, just not female," said Haney.

"If we look at pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers, air traffic controllers, all these jobs in aviation, they have very little women representation … I think it takes a long time to get the wheel spinning, but it is getting there slowly."

Sharing news of their career milestone online, Haney and Kroonenburg were flooded with messages of support as they highlighted the need to recruit more Inuit and women to a profession they say can be difficult to break into for people from northern communities.

Melissa Haney was greeted by 300 people at the airport in her hometown in northern Quebec to celebrate her accomplishment. There was a homemade cake, gifts - and a lot of smiles.
Melissa Haney was greeted by 300 people at the airport in her hometown in northern Quebec to celebrate her accomplishment. There was a homemade cake, gifts - and a lot of smiles.

Melissa Haney was greeted by 300 people at the airport in her hometown in northern Quebec to celebrate her accomplishment of becoming the first female Inuk captain for Air Inuit in 2016. There was a homemade cake, gifts — and a lot of smiles. (Caroline Oweetaluktuk)

Importance of 'seeing somebody who looks like you'

Haney, from Inukjuak, Nunavik, first fell in love with aviation after becoming a flight attendant in 2001 and meeting Inuit pilots on the job.

"Seeing somebody who looks like you and is like you is important to push you along and get into a career that you want to have," said Haney.

"We strive to have as many Inuit working for the airline and the pilot position is one of them."

Before becoming a pilot in 2019, Kroonenburg, who is from Kuujjuarapik, Nunavik, became a flight attendant through the Sparrow program, an Air Inuit initiative to help guide Inuit candidates to become pilots.

"I was actually the flight attendant on Melissa's first flight as a captain," said Kroonenburg.

"When we landed in Montreal, I had asked all the passengers to stay on board and give her a round of applause."

Melissa Haney and Zoe Kroonenburg pictured in 2016 when Haney was a pilot and Kroonenburg a flight attendant.
Melissa Haney and Zoe Kroonenburg pictured in 2016 when Haney was a pilot and Kroonenburg a flight attendant.

Melissa Haney, left, and Zoe Kroonenburg, right, pictured in 2016 when Haney was a pilot and Kroonenburg a flight attendant. (Submitted by Melissa Haney)

'Proud moment' for Air Inuit

Since then, Kroonenburg says Haney has acted as a kind of mentor to her, even attending her graduation.

"It really changed my life, this career," said Kroonenburg.

"They are not a lot of us. So like Melissa said, representation matters. When we travel, when we go up to Nunavik for work, a lot of girls see us and I think it can be very inspiring for them."

Christian Busch, the president and CEO of Air Inuit, says Kroonenburg and Haney's latest trip north was the first time a female Inuk captain and copilot flew a 737 for Air Inuit.

He says both women, who are among the 20 Inuit pilots with the airline, are "inspirations for the youth of Nunavik."

Zoe Kroonenburg and Melissa Haney pictured with another pilot, Félix Pita Blouin.
Zoe Kroonenburg and Melissa Haney pictured with another pilot, Félix Pita Blouin.

Zoe Kroonenburg and Melissa Haney pictured with another pilot, Félix Pita Blouin. (Submitted by Melissa Haney)

"[It's a] very, very proud moment," said Busch. "To see that we have an Air Inuit Sparrow student with a renowned captain: Melissa [and] Zoe in the cockpit … They're great ambassadors."

Busch says the Sparrow program has been in place for about 10 years and Haney, as one of the co-ordinators, travels across Nunavik to meet prospective students. Busch says interest among women in joining technical positions has increased in the past 20 years.

"We're pushing for that and we're giving all [the] tools necessary to Melissa and our team to try to get the most ladies in our cockpit," said Busch.

Cost, education among the barriers to pursuing career in aviation

But Haney notes there can be several barriers for Inuit pursuing aviation — particularly cost and access to education. The Sparrow program covers costs and Haney says without that help, getting a pilot licence would be prohibitively expensive for most.

"It's over $100,000 … You know from point A to point Z," said Haney.

"The next challenge that a lot of the students have … is education. We know education in the North in many Indigenous communities can be poor [compared] to the rest of Canada."

Zoe Kroonenburg hopes to inspire girls in Nunavik who see female pilots fly into their communities.
Zoe Kroonenburg hopes to inspire girls in Nunavik who see female pilots fly into their communities.

Zoe Kroonenburg hopes to inspire girls in Nunavik who see female pilots fly into their communities. (Submitted by Zoe Kroonenburg)

She works with Elevate Aviation, a Canadian not-for-profit organization that promotes underrepresented groups in the industry. In May, the organization will be visiting more than 30 cities — including Montreal and Quebec City — giving presentations to encourage youth to consider a career in aviation.

Haney hopes that by the time she retires, she's known as a pilot, period.

"We're in 2024 and to see two women fly a plane, it's a big thing," said Haney.

"So I would hope that it would just become a normal thing."