Story about first Indigenous Arctic pilot ‘Freddie the Flyer’ added to Dolly Parton library

Youth across the region do ‘wisdom fest’ projects on legendary pilot Fred Carmichael, living in Inuvik.

A children’s book by and about local Gwitch’in pilot Freddy Carmichael has caught the eye of the Dolly Parton Children’s Imagination Library.

Carmichael was the first Indigenous commercial pilot to come from the Arctic.

The book, co-authored by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail with artwork from Audrea Loreen-Wulf originally from the Arctic Ocean community of Tuktoyaktuk, was published in October 2023 in both the region’s Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun languages.

“Fred, you’re a very humble guy,” says his wife Miki O’Kane sitting next to Carmichael as they share the adventures of the past. “Your story can help kids and that’s the whole idea is to help kids follow their dreams.”

Children like Cooper Lennie, 10 of the Western Arctic town of Inuvik who adds that airplanes are important in the Arctic. “It’s really cool,” he says of the book, “because is like a lot of water and since there’s a lot that ice and snow that can block up the roads, you need, like planes to get to places.

“I enjoyed the book because it has pictures of like planes and he made the top-secret radar base.”

Freddy the Flyer
Mabel Lennie with her son Cooper, 10 who wrote his February Wisdom Fest project about Indigenous pilots including Carmichael. Photo: Karli Zschogner/APTN.

To pay for his aviation dream, Carmichael, 88, worked on the Distant Early Warning system – a system of radar stations across the Arctic watching for Russian encroachment on North America.

Carmichael was born and raised in the bush and in the neighbouring remote delta community of Aklavik. His mother was Gwich’in. His father was Irish and Scottish. He attended the Immaculate Conception Residential and Day School in Aklavik until he was 10 but didn’t return to school after his family’s cabin burned down.

Inspired at a young age by planes, Carmichael received his pilot’s license at age 20 in 1955 in Edmonton after encouragement from mentors and returned to serve the Western Arctic. He co-founded Reindeer Service in part to help manage the reindeer herds.

Known for many search and rescues, he’d hire Indigenous pilots and crews. He went on to found other flying services including Antler Aviation, Western Arctic Air, and Western Arctic Nature Tours.

Over the decades, Freddie has been honoured by the Order of Canada, an Indspire Award, and Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, as well as an Honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Saskatchewan.

More than just a pilot

Freddy the Flyer
Carmichael, with his wife Miki O’Kane, at his Cessna 170 based at Shell Lake Inuvik, N.W.T. on with bool ‘Freddie The Flyer.’ Photo: Karli Zschogner/APTN.

At a book release in Inuvik, some people were brought to tears reading through it including Inuvialuit community leader Rory Voudrach, who recently passed in January.

“I’m very thankful to be alive. Thankful for Fred’s experience and expertise,” said Voudrach at the book release.

He shared his story of being in a gun accident when he was eight or ten years old at his family’s camp. He said Carmichael coached his father on how to light fires along a makeshift runway to help him land in the darkness.

“I got a lot of respect for Freddie, for that reason,” he said. “And supporting all of us Inuvialuit, us Gwich’in the region, across the north in our camps and allow us to go to their camps and live that life.”

Bobbie Joe Greenland Morgan, who’s known Carmichael since she was a baby and as a family relative growing up in Aklavik also spoke at the Inuvik book launch.

‘Every page there’s something in it that makes me smile and makes me feel encouraged, proud of Freddie,” says Greenland Morgan in an interview, reading through the book told in the 12 months and in the local languages of Gwich’in and Inuvialuktun.

“As Indigenous people, we set goals and dreams like anyone else. But in the reality of life often we have more barriers and more things that we need to overcome to reach those goals,” says Greenland Morgan, who is also a mother.

Freddy the Flyer
Bobbie Joe Greenland Morgan says her father Freddie Greenland and Carmichael would go up in the plane looking for caribou. One of Carmichael’s Reindeer Air Cessna170 planes is mounted as you enter Inuvik. Photo: Karli Zschogner/APTN.

Freddie The Flyer has been added to the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a free monthly book subscription for children ages five and under.

“The artwork is unbelievable,” said Jeanne Smitiuch, senior regional director for The Dollywood Foundation of Canada. “It really represents the communities up there … and the native languages in the book as well.”

“Low literacy skills are a major barrier for many Canadians, preventing them from obtaining the education and employment opportunities they need to participate in society fully.”

The Canadian chapter began in 2006 and she says about 53,000 children receive books every month right now in every province and territory from urban to the most rural and Indigenous communities.

She says they’ve delivered about 3.6 million books since the program started in Canada with the support of regional and provincial/territorial funding, and partnerships with daycares and libraries.

“One of the things that really inspired Dolly was the fact that her dad could not read or write and she really saw how he was limited by that fact … they found a way, you know, to mail a book once a month, and then the community next door, and the other communities all wanted this program.”

This year, 84 per cent of the books are Canadian and Freddie the Flyer is one of seven published by an Indigenous author or illustrator.

Others include ‘On the Trapline’ by David A. Robertson and Illustrated by Julie Flett, ‘My Lala’ by Thomas King and Illustrated by Charlene Chua, and ‘Benny and Banasaurus Rex’ by Inuk author Sarabeth Holden and illustrated by Emma Pederson.

Freddie The Flyer is set to be mailed out to homes in July for ages four to five.

“Books are like windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange,” said Smitiuch. “Books can also be a mirror reflecting our own lives and experiences. The Indigenous stories are at the heart of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library … and Dolly’s heart of being able to empathize and see what you know, how other people live or their stories and other cultures.”

O’Kane says the couple is humbled that the book was selected.

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