Emily Slator is only 10 years old, but she's 100 per cent certain what she wants to be when she grows up: a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Her grandmother was a major, her family has a rich military history, and Emily wants to soar to the skies to continue that tradition.
"It's my dream to fly one of those," she said Saturday morning, gesturing around the hangar at 17 Wing toward aircraft such as the Dash 8 or the Hercules.
Emily was one of 150 young girls at the Canadian Forces Base Winnipeg for the fifth-annual Girls in Aviation Day, an event put on by Women in Aviation International intended to show young women that they can and should become the future leaders of the aviation and aerospace industries.
Despite the fact women are equally as capable as men of becoming pilots, engineers, flight instructors, and aviation pioneers, there has long been a gender imbalance in careers in the aviation industry: only seven per cent of North American pilots are women, and about 98 of 100 aircraft maintenance engineers are men.
"This day is necessary because of those numbers," said Kristin Long, the event chair and a veteran pilot herself. "Too often there is still a stigma that these are 'men's jobs,' and girls aren't often encouraged by family or teachers to pursue this field."
Since the first Girls in Aviation Day, nearly 1,000 girls as young as eight years old have been told that those stigmas shouldn't stop them from pursuing their dreams. Throughout the day, the budding aviators shuffled through the base, wide-eyed, as they realized those jobs were within their reach.
Cait Remenda, 8, already knew that: her mom Tanice Steiner is a commercial pilot with Calm Air, so she sees a glimpse of her future every day.
"I want to be a pilot too," she said assertively.
It took the day's keynote speaker about 30 years to reach the same conclusion as Cait.
"At 30, I went flying in a small plane for the first time," said Teara Fraser. The experience was breathtaking, she said, not only for the views of Botswana's Okavango Delta, but because Fraser was so intrigued by the mechanics of flight.
Within a year, she had her pilot's licence, and last year, founded Iskwew Air, a 100 per cent Indigenous women-owned and operated charter flight service based in Vancouver. Iskwew, pronounced Isk-way-you, is a Cree word meaning "woman."
Growing up, Fraser, who is Métis, did not think flying was something she was meant to do, which is why sharing her experiences with young women is particularly important to her, she said.
"I look out at these girls and I see limitless possibilities for them, and I hope they can see that for themselves," she said.
Col. Eric Charron, the commander of CFB 17 Wing Winnipeg, agreed.
"I look around the room and I see potential," he said. In the Air Force, one in five members are women, and in the reserves, nearly one in three, he said.
"But we want more, we need more. You make us better," he told the audience.
In the hangar, the girls climbed into the aircraft, hearing from women exactly what every button and lever did. Sarah Painter, a flight nurse for STARS, sat at the back of the rescue helicopter in front of a precocious crowd.
"I think we live in a world that is changing for girls," she said, noting events such as Saturday's help break down barriers to success in fields like her own.
"If something like this existed when I was younger, it would have opened my eyes."
At the controls of the massive Hercules aircraft, overlooking a wet tarmack, Emily Slator's eyes were definitely open. The École Ness student perked up in her seat, peering through the windows and putting her small feet on the pedals.
She already knew she wanted to be a pilot, but after Saturday's event, she sees that goal with fresh insight, aware of what it means to be a woman in the aviation industry.
When she heard the troubling statistics, she was intially frustrated, but it gave her even more reason to keep striving to fly.
"When I heard that, I said, 'Yep. I'm going to do this,'" she said.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.