It all started with a call in November from Air Canada asking if First Officer Steven Proulx would be interested in being part of an all-Black flight that would include a filming crew to document the journey.
Proulx agreed without realizing just how big a deal it would turn out to be.
“When I came down the bridge to board the aircraft, I realized that I wasn’t the only [Black person]. The whole flight crew were Black people,” the distinguished Air Canada pilot recently told New Canadian Media. “They were on the bridge taking pictures. It was really special.”
On Feb. 11, Air Canada celebrated Black History Month with a historic return-flight initiating from Toronto, Ontario to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., with an all-Black crew of two pilots, eight flight attendants, and Black officers managing ground operations.
“It is a really good initiative. It will show Black people in the younger generation that this [joining the aviation industry] is possible,” Proulx believes.
An unforgettable milestone
Putting the event together was no easy task. The flight was leaving from Toronto but to find a captain, first officer and crew from the Black community proved more difficult than anticipated.
“We are about 380 to 390 Black people in Air Canada, but we have 30 Black pilots out of which only seven are captains,” says Proulx, who had to be flown in from Montreal. The flight attendants came from Calgary.
But despite the scrambling, Proulx says this has been an unforgettable milestone.
“What got me was the realization that not only was my hard work paying off, but I was also inspiring all those from the younger generation who wished to become a pilot,” Proulx says.
‘Higher and further’
Climbing up the ladder in Canada’s aviation industry has not been without its fair share of challenges for Proulx, now 41, originally from Haiti.
At the age of three-and-a-half, Proulx says he and his brother were adopted by a Canadian family who lived near Jumonville, Quebec. By 21, he left his hometown to work in British Columbia where he learned English and got his training licence.
From there, he moved to The Northwest Territories where his aviation career began taking off.
But even while his career has “been going higher and further since,” his success has not come without struggle, at times stemming from his ethnicity alone.
From having to be open to a change of schedule, to being relegated to smaller airlines and accepting shifting vacation times “just to be considered for promotions,” he says, “it’s really hard for Black people to climb up the ladder in the aviation industry compared to white people.”
“We have to be over-prepared. A small mistake can draw a lot of criticism. We don’t want that. There are fewer chances for Black people to be promoted, so we have to work harder,” he explains.
“I have been working hard in aviation for 19 years, not giving up, just to make sure that I can move forward.”
Black immigration to Canada
“Like the Black population in the USA, we have all pretty much come from the Caribbean or Africa,” Proulx says about Black migration to Canada.
Proulx explains that the reason a lot of people from Haiti, the Caribbean and Africa moved to the city of Montreal in the 1970’s was because they also spoke French (a result of colonial times), which made it “easier for them to get a job.”
Afro-Caribbeans in general are fluent in either English or French, Canada’s two official languages. But even then, Canadian immigration policy has not historically favoured Black immigration.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “from 1946 to 1950, Africans comprised only 0.3 per cent of new immigrants to Canada.” African immigration to Canada rose considerably in the 1990’s after increasing political instability and wars pushed people out of that continent, with the majority settling in Ontario and Quebec. By 2006, about 77,960 French-speaking refugees settled in Quebec, mostly in Montreal.
However, despite their language proficiency, university education and work experience, Black people generally continue to have a higher unemployment and underemployment rate than others visible minorities. This applies to the English-speaking Black community of Quebec in particular, where French is the dominant language.
In fact, Black people only hold 3.6 per cent of board seats in Toronto, 1 per cent in Calgary and 0.7 per cent in Vancouver. In Greater Montreal, no Black board members were found in the area’s corporate, voluntary, hospital or education sectors, according to the Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute in a recent study.
Researchers and advocates contend that the systemic racism Blacks face in Canada has been skillfully covered up by history books and popular media even though racial discrimination has been illegal in the country for decades.
Realizing the dream
In that context, Proulx considers himself among the fortunate few to be able to realize his dreams.
“Some lucky people like me get the chance to end up with a nice family. I was able to realize my dreams and I made it,” he says.
Despite the challenges, Proulx believes that “it is a little easier for a Black person to get a high career in Canada” than in the U.S.
“I grew up on a farm, but I had a dream, and I went for it. My parents gave me as good as they could. They are proud that their son was part of Air Canada’s historic initiative,” he says.
Realizing his dreams has also been a matter of pride for his brother who has always “stood behind him, pushing him forward.”
“My brother is really proud of me because of where I came from and where I am at today,” Proulx shares.
The next all-Black flight crew is scheduled for next year, but Proulx says he hopes “it eventually becomes a regular feature.”