By Aine Dolin
Ann Weetaltuk became Canada’s first Indigenous flight attendant when she was hired by Manitoba-based TransAir in 1958. Ann made a habit of breaking boundaries, both as a woman and as a person of indigenous ancestry, throughout her long and varied career. Some of our readers may even remember flying with Weetaltuk on TransAir Mainline flights between Winnipeg, Churchill, and Montreal.
Anniapik Weetaltuk in TransAir Stewardess Uniform, 1958. (Aircraft & Airport Magazine, October, 1958)
Anniapik Weetaltuk was born on Cape Hope Island, or Nunaaluk, in James Bay in 1935. George Weetaltuk, Ann’s grandfather, founded the community of Cape Hope Island in the 1920’s; it was the most southern Inuit settlement in Canada until 1960 when the community was moved to Kuujjuarapik, QC by the Canadian government. Due to Nunaaluk’s relatively southern location compared to other Inuit communities it shared a unique relationship with the Cree communities surrounding it.
Members of Wetaluk family pose beside one of George Weetaltuk’s schooners on Cape Hope Island (Nunaaluk), c.1943. (HBCA, 1987/363-E-230/1-122)
Weetaltuk’s family lived among and shared traditional knowledge including hunting methods and language with Cree families. Weetaltuk’s brother Eddie Weetaltuk describes one cross-cultural encounter upon the family’s arrival to East Main in his autobiography From the Tundra to the Trenches, “All eyes were on Mother for they had never seen an ‘amauti’, the parka worn by Eskimo women. Apparently, no Eskimo woman had ever set foot on that part of the Cree territory. Everyone was amazed to see the way mother was carrying baby Ann on her back inside the parka’s hood that we call ‘amuat’.” (Weetaltuk, 2017, p. 20). This experience gave Ann the opportunity to learn Cree, which she spoke fluently along with Inuktitut, French and English, forming an invaluable skill in her later work as both a stewardess flying in northern communities, and later working for the Quebec government.
Weetaltuk attended a catholic school at Fort George which was run and operated by the Oblate Fathers and Grey Nuns. Weetaltuk’s two older brothers had chosen to attend this school before her and with the permission of their parents; while we do not know if Ann shared the same experience, Eddie Weetaltuk described his school experience at Fort George in his autobiography as difficult but a generally positive experience where he was not denied the opportunity to engage in his own culture or spend time with his family. Having completed school, Ann Weetaltuk moved south and in 1951 enrolled in a nursing course at the Hamilton Sanatorium, in Hamilton, ON. Weetaltuk earned a diploma as a nursing assistant and worked at the Ottawa Civic Hospital, The Bell Telephone Hospital at Great Whale and the Montreal General Hospital. She also served for three months abroad the Department of Transport ice breaker “C.D. Howe” as both a registrar for the Department of Northern Affairs and as a nurse.
Weetaltuk family pose for a photo at Cape Hope Island (Nunaaluk) c.1930s. Ann‘s mother Mary Sivuaq Annie Saala holds a baby on right which may be Ann’s brother Eddy as identified by Mini Aodla Freeman through the Avataq Cultural Institute, 1987. (HBCA, 1987/363-E-220/1-91)
In 1958, when Ann Weetaltuk’s appointment as a stewardess with TransAir, and the first Indigenous stewardess in Canada, was announced it was met with some media attention and public interest. TransAir’s manager of the Mainline Division, J.G. Twist, said of Weetaltuk, “Miss Weetaltuk’s charm friendliness, and training makes her an ideal choice to serve as an airline stewardess and we are confident she will fulfil her duties in a manner that will reflect credit on herself and the company.” Ann Weetaltuk remained employed with TransAir for two years, and, according to retired TransAir pilot Alan Nelson, she would have been serving coffee cheese and crackers and potentially hot meals on the longer flights to Montreal in the DC-3, which was equipped with a small kitchen or food prep area.
In fact, the publicity of her employment caused some issues for her brother Eddie, who had pretended to be only half Inuit so that he might serve in the RCAF. A fellow soldier noticed Eddie’s resemblance to Ann and said she must be his sister; which Eddie was forced to deny for fear of his parentage disqualifying him from service. In 1960 Ann Weetaltuk left Trans-Air when she became pregnant, and moved to live with her family in Great Whale River where the community of Nunaaluk had been forcibly relocated by the Canadian government.
While living in Great Whale River and working for the northern affairs department in charge of Eskimo handicrafts, Ann Weetaltuk met Australian Terry Whitfield, who was employed by Marconi as an electrician and diesel mechanic and with whom she began a romantic relationship. This sadly led to Whitfield’s termination from his position with Marconi due to a clause in his employment contract which forbade him from “fraternizing with locals”. In 1961 Whitfield and Weetaltuk planned to bring their complaint against Marconi to the floor of the House of Commons to be heard by Minister of Northern Affairs, Dinsdale. Whitfield and Weetaltuk married, however their relationship did not last long and Weetaltuk later re-married.
Ann Weetaltuk continued to work for the government of Quebec in Montreal and Great Whale, Nunavik (Great Whale is now Kuujjuaraapik). After speaking with her family, Alan Nelson informed the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada that Ann Weetaltuk had passed away a few years ago; her family still lives in Kuujjuaraapik today where her son Mike Shields worked for Air Inuit and managed the Kuujjuaraapik airport.