Manitoba Aerospace

Manitoba Aerospace is working to bridge the aerospace industry and the Indigenous economy for the benefit of both. They are a membership-based, not-for-profit organization that supports and promotes the aerospace and defence industries in Manitoba through business development, research and innovation, and human resource initiatives. Throughout much of their history, Manitoba Aerospace has endeavoured to make reconciliation a key part of their company culture. “As a settler, I never want to claim that we’re working on reconciliation. I think that’s up to the Indigenous communities to say,” remarks Barbara Bowen, director of special programs at Manitoba Aerospace. “But we’ve had several members from Indigenous communities tell us that what we’re doing is a part of reconciliation, so it makes me very proud to know that as an organization people feel we’re making a difference.” Manitoba Aerospace’s commitment to making a difference is certainly exemplary. Canada is a global leader in aerospace, and Manitoba is home to Canada’s third largest aerospace industry. Over the years the industry has grown to include sophisticated design, manufacturing, servicing, testing, certification, and research and development. Canada’s largest aerospace composite manufacturing centre is located in Manitoba, as are two of the world’s most advanced aircraft engine testing and certification centres, and the world’s largest independent gas turbine engine repair and overhaul company. Despite the size and success of the aerospace industry in Manitoba, it is still a field in which Indigenous people are underrepresented. “We have a large Indigenous community who have had so many barriers put in place that many don’t even know there is an aerospace industry in Manitoba or that they can work there,” says Bowen. In their early years, Manitoba Aerospace saw the potential of working with Indigenous people. “Many outlying communities are familiar with aerospace from the airplanes that fly in and out. So they might know the pilots and maybe a flight attendant, but there are so many other career opportunities created from those airplanes. We wanted to help people access those opportunities. It’s a rewarding career that appeals to a lot of people who want to contribute to such an important industry for their communities.” Manitoba Aerospace first started by offering training programs to Indigenous people interested in working in the industry. However, they soon recognized the need to partner with an Indigenous organization to learn how best to work with the community in a positive and proactive way. After reaching out to several organizations, they found the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development (CAHRD), a Winnipeg-based nonprofit that delivers literacy, education, training, and employment services to relieve and prevent unemployment among Indigenous people. “Our mandate and CAHRD’s mandate were a great fit,” says Bowen. “We liked that CAHRD not only helps people get the skills they need for employment but also supports them with any challenges they might be facing. It’s not just about the training and employment; it’s about the whole person.”

“We need a nationwide framework on how we can all work together.” Darrell Brown “The mandate for the New World Ideas project is to show youth that engineering and science concepts are not foreign to Indigenous backgrounds,” says Bowen. “Indigenous people didn’t call it physics or engineering, but so many of those concepts were part of what Indigenous people used to build canoes, develop housing, create food systems, and those kinds of things. When settlers came to North America, we learned so much from Indigenous peoples. We would not have survived without the help of Indigenous people, and that’s not recognized by the settler community.” The New World Ideas project honors the innovative spirit of Indigenous peoples through a series of documentaries and teaching guides designed to be used in Canadian classrooms. The project and partnership have been successful at acknowledging the contributions of Indigenous peoples to science and encouraging Indigenous youth to consider careers in engineering. Even beyond their work with ENGAP and CAHRD, Manitoba Aerospace felt that they could do more, especially when it came to working directly with communities. They decided that one way to create major impact was by constructing an on-reserve aerospace manufacturing facility. “We took that message and shared it with many First Nations, and the Opaskwayak Cree Nation is the community that stepped up and said we want to do it,” describes Bowen. “So, we got the funding to do a feasibility study to see if this would work.” Constructing and operating an aerospace manufacturing facility is a challenge for any community due to the high standards required to put airplanes in the sky. After six months, the feasibility study delivered positive results. “So, then we presented to the chief and council and they were very excited and supportive,” says Bowen. “The next step was to create a business plan that would lay out costs and profits over the near, medium, and long terms.” That business plan took 10 months to create and showed that while it would take a few years for the facility to be profitable, there would certainly be a return on investment. Manitoba Aerospace presented the business plan to the Opaskwayak Cree Nation in the summer of 2019, after which the project was approved and OCN Chief and Council began to search for investors. The COVID-19 pandemic has since put the project on hold, but the facility is expected to move forward and become the first of its kind among First Nations in Canada. As an Indigenous person working for Manitoba Aerospace, Ballantyne’s message to other organizations seeking to advance the Indigenous economy is to strive to really connect with Indigenous communities. “Connect and really do that outreach,” she says. “And if there are any companies or business leaders out there who need help, we’d be more than happy to help you make those connections.” Bowen’s message is similar, “For non-Indigenous individuals and businesses, the most important thing that I’ve learned is that you have to listen to Indigenous people and businesses. They know how their communities work. Sometimes it’s hard for non-Indigenous people to hear about those barriers and challenges because we’re a part of that, but we have to listen, take it in, and then do what we can to make changes so we can lower those barriers for people.”