How to Start a Charter Airline: The novels of Susan Haley, formerly of Tulita, NWT

Warning: This review discusses sexual abuse by priests.

I discovered Susan Haley when I noticed Petitot, which I had long meant to read, on the fiction shelf at the Yellowknife Public Library. To my surprise, it was flanked by several other titles by the same author (point real life libraries; best way to find what you’re not exactly looking for!). I read Petitot first, and enjoyed it, but because it is a strange novel, and a difficult one for me to assess, and because of my fascination with the way northerners turn their experiences in the North into fiction, I’ll start with Haley herself. 

Haley, as anyone can learn on the internet, grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and got her PhD in philosophy from the University of Calgary before teaching there and at the University of Saskatchewan. Her first two novels – Getting Married in Buffalo Jump (1987) and A Nest of Singing Birds (1988) – were both made into CBC TV movies. “Her third novel, How to Start a Charter Airline (1994), draws on her experience owning a charter airline in the Northwest Territories for nearly 15 years,” her publisher tells me. 

I needed to know more. After I spotted a photo of Haley with Paul Andrew, the former CBC-er and former chief of Tulita, on her blog, I asked him for more details. “I’m honored to call Susan a friend,” he said. “They lived in Tulit’a for a number of years. It would not be a stretch to say the community love them. Her husband, the (in)famous Marten Hartwell was the pilot and she ran the company.” (More on that infamy here; this is actually just too crazy for me to get into here.)

Haley was also, Andrew noted, the driving force behind the declaration of the Anglican church in Tulita, built in 1880 and one of the oldest standing buildings in the territory, a historic site. I like this kind of energy, and I could sense the same energy in How to Start a Charter Airline, which is an immediately likable book. 

The novel tells the story of a bush pilot and a former academic with a meet-cute that involves a short flight to nearby Mountain River, whose only merit over Island Crossing, pop. 200, where the academic lives, is that it has a bar. Despite comical interventions, the two hit it off and the relationship escalates. Obstacles include both of them confronting past relationships: her, with an abusive PhD candidate who had been doing research in Island Crossing; him with an ex-wife tired of his philandering. It’s a basic marriage plot, with the goal of obtaining a licence to run a charter airline serving the function of the actual marriage, such will it combine their fortunes. 

But the real story is about two southerners who find refuge in a small northern community, simply because they like the place and the people. Haley:

She had been studying people here once, but she was no longer studying anyone. Helen had somehow dropped out of her own culture without actually joining another. She was not one of the pioneer white civil servants, teachers, nurses, doctors, agents of the Department of Indian Affairs, who ruled the community. And since she was not a part of that white officialdom, she was treated with indifference, or friendliness, depending what people actually thought of her, and she responded in kind.

Helen’s best friend is an elderly woman who helps other women whose husbands beat them (Helen herself is one of these women). She’s also in fairly deep with the community’s chief. She goes fishing and hosts house parties. She lives off rabbit and fish shared with her by others. In other words, she is fully a part of the community, and I’m lingering on this because of just how rare this is, primarily for the reasons of white officialdom that Haley astutely identifies.

It’s refreshing to read a novel set in the North that doesn’t use emphasize the “remoteness” or “harsh winters,” but rather the warmth to be found there, and still rarer to read one that equates the domestic violence found in a small cabin in Island Crossing with the very same kind of violence found in the offices and apartments of competitive academics. Haley’s respect and appreciation of the people in the community thrums throughout the novel, like in this brief passage about an old dog who surprised everyone by making his way out to a distant camp. “He was old and slow but he had a determined look. After all, he had ancestors too.” 

Yellowknife simply goes unmentioned, and I’ll let that stand as my final point of praise for this charming novel (available in hardcover at the Yellowknife Public Library). 

Re: Petitot. This historical novel concerns the French Oblate missionary, Emile Petitot, who spent about 15 years in the Northwest Territories, starting in 1862. Haley tells the story via a modern day teacher who moves to the Sahtu, is slow to acclimatize, and ends up on the trail of Petitot’s history. Other sections flip back into the 19th century. 

I said I don’t know what to make of this novel because I know little about the facts around Petitot’s life, but I was also flummoxed by the frank sexuality of this book. Haley dwells rather obsessively on the nature of certain individuals who attract lust, starting with the priest: “Emile … is almost always the mark of someone’s lust. Teachers at Sacred Heart and boys when he was at school, and now some of the teachers still, and the older boys – as well as friends of his father, even his own uncle, plus a long line of barrowmen, shopkeepers, landlords, street people, fellow passengers on the tram, casual acquaintances – all attempt to use him for this purpose.” She also describes in detail the sexual attraction of certain “Native” children in Tulita, both in the 19th century and in her present day, which is … hard to read. Unlike in Charter Airline, this novel is uninhibited in the violence and chaos it describes in the contemporary North, perhaps because it’s seen through the eyes of a teacher who takes a while to acclimatize. Yellowknife, in Petitot, is described only as a place of debauchery for teachers who attend conferences (adding for clarity: this is a good thing; too many northerners view the North only through its capitals). 

I want to say this novel is brave and fascinating, as it surely was in 2005, but reading it just ahead of the Pope’s visit to Canada was a challenge for me. I will return to it (partially because of the gorgeously illustrated and hand-published edition from Gaspereau Press) as I will to the many other novels of Susan Haley. 

How To Start a Charter Airline
By Susan Haley
Macmillan Canada, 1994
246 pages

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