A Convivial Conveyance

At least it wasn’t sunny, the morning I left for Toronto on Air North’s new direct route.

There should be a word for this pang I experience, every time I leave the Yukon, a sort of FOMO of the seasons. Do you know what I mean? How can I miss this time of year? I even ask myself this when I’m leaving in November. In this case, May’s snows still clog the trails, but I have only seen a crocus, so far, on social media. I’m going to miss spring, moans a small voice inside me. There might be leaves and mosquitoes when I return. If it had been sunny, it might have killed me.

As it was, a fine snow fell. It felt to me like the snow of kindness.

Air North food service
A tasty snack for the journey

The prospect of flying to Toronto, all the way on Air North, filled me with relaxation. No change of airline, no transfer of luggage (much less risk of its loss or delay). Two pieces of checked luggage included each way. Covid contacts limited to a smallish airplane with only a few extra people joining in Yellowknife. I figured they were also probably going to feed me.

Perhaps I was too relaxed. I only woke up once, in the night, to check the time. And then the alarm didn’t go off.

So I was still waking up as I dropped off my luggage in the airport, less than thirty minutes after opening my eyes.

I gradually became aware of a celebratory feeling in the air. I was still pretty sleepy when the Air North agent asked me if I would be going to the party in Toronto, if I’d like my luggage brought there.

Usually, air travel is mostly about surviving it and getting where you need to go. I had told my friends about what time to expect me and was keen to see them after more than two years of Covid separation. I had envisioned writing this article for What’s Up Yukon from a quietly subjective point of view. I started to wake up to the idea that I had some other responsibilities to cover if I were going to do this story.

So please come along with me to the party as we head to Toronto …

I signed the commemorative poster for the new route, and then the speeches started. Benjamin Ryan, CCO at Air North, hosted Premier Silver and Minister Clark from the Yukon Government, Councilor Bonnee Bingham of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, Chief Amanda Leas of the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, and Katherine Peter of the Vuntut Development Corporation, all spoke.

Then everyone but Minister Clark went through security, and we boarded the full plane.

One of the things I love about Air North is the way its boarding protocol follows a humane and comprehensible logic. Those who need help, board. Then they fill the plane from the back forward. When compared with another airline (whose zone system seems, to me, to deploy Canada’s continuing system of social class), in a deeply cynical way I feel like I’m participating in a system that aligns better with my own values.

To be sure, the seats don’t offer the spaciousness of business class or even premium economy. But there’s a feeling of all being in it together. This is a feeling that would continue throughout this flight, a flight that was more like an event or a performance than I anticipated.

After boarding, the service manager held up a blue-and-white-striped bear. “Can I get your attention, here, at the front of the plane? Somebody dropped their stuffy.” And we all laughed together.

The plane quickly ascended through the clouds, into sunlight. The pilot—none other than Joe Sparling, Air North’s president and instigator—pointed out Virginia Falls, Fort Simpson, the Mackenzie River and Lake Superior. The patchy snow cover revealed landforms whose geology intrigued me, mapping out changes in elevation, dark trees in valleys. I know only enough to wonder at the stories in the scrapes, lakes, oxbows and eskers below me.

Katherine Peter, of the Vuntut Gwitchin Development Corporation, sat beside me. She lives and works in Old Crow and, so, gets to fly home on Air North. “At 50 below, in a storm, they still get us home safely. Air North provides an essential service to our community, bringing food, mail—everything we need—but most importantly it brings our loved ones home safely to us,” she told me.

On the Whitehorse to Yellowknife segment, the spices in the fresh Morning Glory Muffin developed delightfully in the embrace of the Midnight Sun coffee.

We stayed on the plane in Yellowknife. The only downside was that it’s a long time not to stand up and stretch. Bathroom visits become important for this.

A full hot meal beguiled the four-hour Yellowknife to Toronto segment—a choice of Bison Shepherd’s Pie or Chicken Curry, with a fresh pasta salad with feta, tomatoes and olives, a fresh roll and Strawberry Cheesecake. The feeling of everyone on the plane, having eaten together, added to the sense of conviviality.

For this inaugural flight, we also received gift bags with party hats, granola bars, pins and other treats. As well, a pre-stamped postcard, to send to a friend, which enters both sender and friend into a draw. Looking around, a few balloon-printed cones of cardboard bobbed above the seats, perched on heads. Definitely different than your usual flight to Toronto.

Passengers broke into spontaneous applause at Sparling’s smooth landing in Toronto. The Teechik Dancers, from Old Crow, welcomed us by dancing at the gate. Stan Njoootli Sr., Cheryl Charlie, Jayce Charlie, Annie Black, Dredyn Kassi and Jynestta Charlie jigged in the busy airport.

Annie Avery turned up beside me and we found our way around together. We followed sign-carrying guides to the lounge in Terminal One, where the celebration would take place. Craig Bradbrook, Pearson Airport’s chief operating officer, congratulated Air North on being the first airline to provide direct service to the Northwest Territories or to the Yukon, from Pearson Airport.

Premier Silver and Minister Pillai also spoke, as well as Joe Sparling. Chief Doris Bill made the point in her speech that this flight will help all Yukoners visit family across Canada. She also observed how hard and expensive it has been for families to bring home loved ones who have passed away in the South, and how this route will make this kind of thing easier. This added a new dimension of understanding, for me, of what can be meant by making access to the North easier. She told a story of how she was standing beside Joe Sparling when the first Air North flight took off. Her sharing of her understanding of how Air North is “Yukon’s Airline” rang true to me. She observed that Air North is 49 per cent owned by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation; and also that all Yukoners—Indigenous and non-Indigenous—feel that it’s theirs.

Chief Stacey Laforme (chief of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation) shared some of his poems with us in his speech. They spoke feelingly of stewardship of the land. He extended that responsibility for stewardship to all of us who are here now. He invited us to feel at home, and he spoke hopefully towards more partnerships, especially with Yukon First Nations. Gifts were given and received between Chief Laforme and chiefs Bill and Leas and Councillor Bingham.

Cole Robulack spoke eloquently for Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation youth, telling the story of traveling to Toronto for sporting events, on an Air North charter, and tracing the opportunities that Air North offers, which he values as a young Vuntut Gwitchin citizen.

Boyd Benjamin fiddled while Kevin Barr played guitar, and they also accompanied further dancing by the Teechik Dancers. Stan Njootli Sr.’s smooth jigging was a delight to behold, especially in the Scarf Dance.

I found someone to direct Annie to the train she needed. As I walked away, I felt nourished by having been part of my Yukon community, even all the way over here in Toronto. I know when I go to the gate, to board the Air North flight to Whitehorse, that in some important ways I will already be home.

Then I got the express bus to Kipling Station, and then took the subway to Bathurst, a route I have taken many times … but not for well over two years now. My Presto card still worked. I wrote this article from my friend’s spare room, as the mild night air came through the window, and the subway rumbled under the floor. This is another kind of homecoming, too, and I’m grateful that Air North has just made that much easier.

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