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The stars were shining brightly in Vaughan, Ont., on Sept. 30, 2017, at the ninth annual Northern Lights Aero Foundation (NLAF) “Elsie” gala.
The event, named in memory of trailblazing Canadian aerospace engineer Elsie Gregory MacGill, recognizes the best and brightest women in Canadian aviation and aerospace. About 325 people gathered at the Toscana Conference Centre to celebrate the accomplishments of eight 2017 award recipients.
Following the opening program, Brenda Harwood, corporate recruiter for Jazz Aviation and chair of the airline’s Aboriginal Employee Group, made a special presentation to two young indigenous women who are making their mark in aviation and aerospace.
The first recipient was Zoey Petit, an honours student at Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies and a full-time aircraft maintenance engineer apprentice with Northern Air Operations in La Ronge, Sask. The second award went to Kandace Sittichinli, a student pilot at First Nations Technical Institute in Deseronto, Ont.
Next, former CBC News host and vice-chair of the Canadian International Air Show, Jacquie Perrin, read tributes to the eight 2017 honourees during the awards presentations.
The first was Heather McGonigal, who was selected to receive this year’s Flight Operations Award. From a long line of aviators, McGonigal is currently director of flight operations at Transwest Air, where she is also a training captain and a Saab 340 line pilot. She is also the current chair of the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC). She is credited with developing Transwest Air’s effective safety management system and overseeing the approval process with Transport Canada. McGonigal also teaches the Canadian Aviation Regulations class at Saskatchewan Polytechnic’s commercial pilot program.
“My dad was a corporate pilot for over 40 years, and made me aware prior to commencing flight training that being a female in aviation would be an uphill battle, but that I would succeed as long as I loved flying and not just the notion of being a pilot,” said McGonigal. “I have had the privilege of enjoying an exciting and rewarding career in aviation and I hope we can continue to promote the wonderful work of Elsie MacGill and continue to attract more women to this wonderful industry.”
The Government Award was presented next to Col Helen Wright, who joined the Canadian Forces as a bioscience officer in 1990. A physician with training in family medicine, aerospace medicine, public health and flight safety, Wright has deployed to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Her expertise in human factors led to the development of an analysis and classification system that helps to determine the cause of aircraft crashes. She also led the team that provided medical oversight of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) search and rescue program, which reviewed the pre-hospital procedure manual used by rescue technicians.
“I’m incredibly honoured to part of the group of women who are getting awards this evening,” Wright told the audience. “I mostly feel like I’m still getting away with a career that has been incredibly interesting, fun, and exciting, with new opportunities all the time. Whether you’re a pilot or someone who works directly in aviation or someone like myself who works in support of aviation, this evening highlights how truly exciting some of these careers can be.”
The NLAF Education Award was presented posthumously to Joan Williams.
“Learn to fly. In more ways than one, this was the theme of Joan Williams’ life,” said Perrin. “Joan left us in July this year, but her legacy in aviation and the field of education lives on. A born innovator, visionary, role model and mentor, Joan always had a plan for the future.”
For more than 30 years, Williams was a fixture in Canadian commercial aviation and flight training, through her work at Toronto Airways and Ottawa Aviation Services, and as a long-time member and director of ATAC.
Her award was accepted at the gala by her son, Andrew Williams, who said he was overwhelmed by the importance of the evening. “It’s enormously pleasing for me to be here to accept this award on my mother’s behalf. She was extremely pleased to know that she was going to receive it.”
Next, Catherine Tsouvaltsidis was announced as the recipient of the inaugural NLAF Engineering Award. Currently working for TD Bank, Tsouvaltsidis previously spent six years in the Canadian space sector, where she worked on a variety of projects including the refurbishment and upgrading of a radio-astronomy dish, and the design and development of a satellite tracking and monitoring platform, micro-spectrometer, and UV gas camera.
“I have been blessed with many opportunities to learn and grow in my career. I feel like the only thing I can do is help other women to learn and grow as well,” said Tsouvaltsidis. “Every year, I try to mentor four to six young women who are starting their careers in aerospace. To everyone in this room, I’d like to encourage you to think about the young women who are in STEM-related fields in your life and help encourage them to grow and pursue their passions and skills. They are our future, they are our change agents, and they are potentially the next women who will be standing here in my place. Take care of them . . . help guide them to reach the stars.”
Heather Bell received the Business Award for her work in the field of air traffic control. In 1983, she began her career as an air traffic controller and worked her way up through the ranks at Nav Canada. In 2016, she retired from the position of general manager of the Vancouver Flight Information Region. Recently, she has consulted for the Vancouver Airport Authority and the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, among others. She is also involved in the formation of Iskwew Air, a 100 per cent Indigenous women-owned company in British Columbia.
“Aviation, like everything else in life, is much better because of the diversity that we see with women and all people from different walks of life,” said Bell. “In all the years that I’ve been in this industry, 33 years, I have to give kudos to Nav Canada. Every time we wanted to do something to support women, they were supportive . . . I see great things for the future, especially from my beautiful children. I think we all need to work together to encourage not only women, but our youth, so that aviation continues to be a vital and viable force in the Canadian landscape.”
The NLAF presented two Rising Star awards in 2017, to Candace McKibbon and Jessalyn Teed.
McKibbon is a terminal duty officer with the Vancouver Airport Authority and a former operations agent for Marquis Customer Service at YVR, where she landed a job after graduating from the British Columbia Institute of Technology in 2014. In addition, she is the executive director of the B.C. Aviation Council, where she works hard to promote aviation throughout the province.
“I feel humbled and honoured to be recognized,” said McKibbon. “I have a support network of men and women back home who have done everything they can to help my career. Prior to school I had no idea about aviation at all, but I stumbled into the course at BCIT and from there, the rest is history.”
Teed attended a COPA Young Eagles event at age eight, and has been fixed on an aviation career ever since. A recent honours graduate of the University of Waterloo’s Environmental Studies and Aviation program, she completed a human factors thesis on best practices for flight training groundschool. As a dispatcher at Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, Teed is always keen to volunteer at any event promoting aviation careers.
Teed revealed during her speech that she has accepted a job with Sunwing Airlines’ cadet program. “I have finished my third week of training and survived my first sim this morning, so it’s very exciting to be standing here having made it through that!”
The final award for 2017 was the Pioneer Award presented to Maj Deanna Brasseur.
Brasseur, whose father was in the Air Force, grew up on bases and radar stations. She would ride her bike to the end of the runway and watch the planes come in and land.
“I always thought boys were really lucky that they got to do the exciting jobs,” she said in a video presentation aired before her speech. “This was in the early 1960s, and I thought that if women were allowed, I’d like to become a pilot. The first barrier was that the laws had to be changed. And I suppose another barrier was convincing those in power that you were capable and competent and deserved the opportunity. Some of the gentlemen didn’t hesitate in telling us they didn’t think we should be pilots.”
Brasseur was one of the first three women to earn her wings in the experimental SWINTER program – the Study of Women in Non-Traditional Environments and Roles.
In 1981, she earned her wings and went on to progress through the RCAF until she qualified on the CF-188 Hornet fighter jet. She was the first female military aircraft accident investigator, among other RCAF career highlights.
After 21 years of service and 2,500 hours of flying jet aircraft, she took early retirement to found a professional speaking and coaching firm, but re-enrolled in the Air Reserve during the war on terror before taking final retirement.
“Pioneer . . . I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t feel old enough yet to be a pioneer!'” said Brasseur when she took the stage.
“When I was 12 or 13 years old, some of you will remember in the 1960s the vinyl rubber boots you had to wear over your good shoes,” she continued. “They were the ugliest things in the entire world! But I still remember that conversation with my mom, when she told me to wear them and I said no one else did. She said, ‘Dare to be different.’ You know, that has stuck with me my whole life.
“When you pioneer something, you have a peer group of three: me, myself and I. You have to believe in yourself and believe in what you’re doing. You have to go forward with absolute conviction in your heart that you can do what it is you choose to do,” Brasseur added.
The title sponsor of the NLAF 2017 Elsie gala was Porter Airlines, an organization that has become a pioneer in its own right for its “Women Soar at Porter” program. Designed to bring in female pilots, leaders and operations/maintenance/ramp personnel, the program was only founded two years ago after the NLAF gala.
In the short time since its inception, Porter now has the highest percentage of female pilots of any Canadian airline, with a management team that is over 50 per cent female.
Nominations for the 2018 Elsie awards will be announced in early January 2018, with a March 31 deadline for submissions. Visit www.northernlightsaerofoundation.com for more details.
In related news, Jazz Aviation LP announced on Oct. 2, 2017, that two Jazz Aviation and Northern Lights Scholarships for Indigenous Women have been awarded at the Elsie MacGill Northern Lights Award Gala. Click here to read more.