Today we are in conversation with Tanya Talaga. Her hard-hitting and important Seven Fallen Feathers tells the story of seven Indigenous teenagers who have gone missing in Thunder Bay over the past several years. Throughout the narrative, she unpacks the legacy of the residential school system and explores how ongoing colonialism and bureaucratic indifference impact Indigenous youth in Northern Ontario. The book was a finalist for this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust of Canada Prize for Nonfiction.
According to The Walrus, "Seven Fallen Feathers is a must-read for all Canadians. It shows us where we came from, where we’re at, and what we need to do to make the country a better place for us all."
Tanya Talaga has been a journalist at the Toronto Star for twenty years, covering everything from general city news to education, national health care, foreign news, and Indigenous affairs. She has been nominated five times for the Michener Award in public service journalism. In 2013, she was part of a team that won a National Newspaper Award for a year-long project on the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. In 2015, she was part of a team that won a National Newspaper Award for Gone, a series of stories on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She is the 2017–2018 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy. Talaga is of Polish and Indigenous descent. Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor. Her great-grandfather, Russell Bowen, was an Ojibwe trapper and labourer. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation. Her mother was raised in Raith and Graham, Ontario. Talaga lives in Toronto with her two teenage children.
THE CHAT WITH TANYA TALAGA
Trevor Corkum: Why was it important for you to share the stories of Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle, and Jordan?
Tanya Talaga: It is important for Canada to see that these seven youth, the Seven Fallen Feathers, all had families and communities who loved them and that their lives mattered. It is not okay that they had to travel 500 km or more to go to a proper high school because there was nowhere for them to go to school in their home communities. It is not okay that they were being sent to a city where they would not be safe. And it is not okay that parents are being asked to make a choice, either keep their children home where they won't be getting the education that every single child in this country should be entitled to, or, send them to live in a boarding home, away from their families, language and culture in order to get an education. In some cases, these are life and death choices.
It is important for Canada to see that these seven youth, the Seven Fallen Feathers, all had families and communities who loved them and that their lives mattered."
TC: You’re a long-time journalist and have covered many important stories for the Toronto Star. What was different about this story?
TT: This story concerns Thunder Bay, Fort William First Nation, and Anishinaabe people. My grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation, which is in Thunder Bay and five of the seven students died in the waters in and around Thunder Bay. My mother was raised outside of Thunder Bay. I was raised in Toronto but I know the area. What is happening in the North—the racist attacks, kids dying in the rivers—is just wrong. And this isn't just a story about Thunder Bay, it is a story about Canada. Elements of this story can be seen across the country—it comes from broken promises and broken treaties, the legacy of the residential school system, children being scooped by child welfare.
TC: The book is a devastating indictment, not only of the casual disregard for the students and their families from local police, but of the historical and ongoing legacies of colonial polices and practices against Indigenous people. You contextualize the personal stories of Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle, and Jordan, for example, within the broader discourse around intergenerational trauma and the impacts of the residential school system. What are you hoping Canadians will take away from the book?
TT: I'm hoping people see the greater context. These are not cut and dry cases. In order to fully understand the story of the seven, you must understand the history behind their stories. The lack of understanding, the generations of indifference and the racism towards Indigenous people that quietly runs underneath Canadian society. The Indian Act. Residential school trauma. The lack of clean water and proper housing in First Nations communities. Broken families and minds. You must see the greater picture.
TC: How has the book been received in Thunder Bay?
TT: I was pleased to be invited by the Thunder Bay Library for a small press conference. They have 13 of my books and one of which has been put aside for the library's permanent collection. This makes me very happy. I spent a lot of time at the TBay library, researching and reading old newspapers.
As well, on Nov. 1, we held a memorial walk to the McIntyre River from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, where six of the seven students attended. This event was the suggestion of Ricky Strang, Reggie Bushie's brother. Reggie was 15 when he was found in the water on November 1, 2007. We did a walk of remembrance instead of a book launch. We had four of the seven families with us and all of the DFC students came. After a traditional ceremony by the water we went back to the high school to have a feast. Beyond the school, some from the greater Thunder Bay community came, including the acting Chief of Police Sylvie Hauth.
Reggie was 15 when he was found in the water on November 1, 2007. We did a walk of remembrance instead of a book launch."
TC: What changes have you noticed on the ground since you wrote Seven Fallen Feathers? How hopeful are you that the situation in Thunder Bay can change?
TT: There is always hope. The happy ending to this book is yet to be written.
EXCERPT from Seven Fallen Feathers
It’s early April and the 2011 federal election is in full swing. All over Canada, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are duking it out with Jack Layton’s New Democrats and the struggling Liberals in a bid to win a majority government.
I’m in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to see Stan Beardy, the Nishawbe-Aski Nation’s grand chief, to interview him for a story on why it is indigenous people never seem to vote.
The receptionist at the NAN’s office greets me and ushers me into a large, common meeting room to wait for Stan. Everything in the room is grey — the walls, the tubular plastic tables, the carpets. The only splash of colour is a large white flag with a bear on it that has been tacked to the wall.
The Great White Bear stands in the centre of a red circle, in the middle of the flag. The white bear is the traditional symbol of the life of the North American Indian. The red circle background is symbolic of the Red Man. His feet are standing, planted firmly on the bottom line, representing the Earth while his head touches the top line, symbolic to his relationship to the Great Spirit in the sky. The bear is stretched out, arms and feet open wide, to show he has nothing to hide.
There are circles joining the bear’s rib cage. They are the souls of the people, indigenous songs, and legends. The circles are the ties that bind all the clans together.
These circles also offer protection. Without them, the ribcage would expose the great bear’s beating heart and leave it open to harm.
Stan walks in and greets me warmly, his brown eyes twinkling as he takes a seat.
Stan is pensive, quiet, and patient. He says nothing as he wearily leans back in his chair and waits for me to explain why exactly I flew 2,400 km north from Toronto to see him and talk about the federal election.
I launch into my spiel, trying not to sound like a salesperson or an interloper into his world, someone who kind of belongs here and kind of does not. This is the curse of my mixed blood. I am the daughter of a half-Anish mom and a Polish father.
I ramble off abysmal voting pattern statistics across Canada, while pointing out that in many ridings indigenous people could act as a swing vote, influencing that riding and hence the trajectory of the election.
Stan stares at me impassively. Non-plussed.
So I start firing off some questions.
It doesn’t go well. Every time I try to engage him, asking him about why indigenous people won’t get in the game and vote, he begins talking about the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Jordan Wabasse.
It was a frustrating exchange, like we were speaking two different languages.
“Indigenous voters could influence fifty seats across the country if they got out and voted but they don’t. Why?” I ask.
“Why aren’t you writing a story on Jordan Wabasse? He has been gone seventy-one days now,” replies Stan.
“Stephen Harper has been no friend to indigenous people yet if everyone voted, they could swing the course of this election,” I continue, hoping he’ll bite at the sound of Harper’s name. The man is no friend of the Indians.
“They found a shoe down by the water. Police think it might have been his,” replies Stan.
This went on for a good fifteen minutes. I was annoyed. I knew a missing Grade 9 indigenous student in Thunder Bay would not make news in urban Toronto at Canada’s largest daily newspaper. I could practically see that election bus rolling away without me.
Then I remembered my manners and where I was.
I was sitting with the elected grand chief of 23,000 people and he was clearly trying to tell me something.
I tried a new tactic. I’d ask about Jordan and then I’d swing around and get him to talk about elections.
Then Stan said: “Jordan is the seventh student to go missing or die while at school.”
Stan says their names: “Reggie Bushie. Jethro Anderson. Paul Panacheese. Curran Strang. Robyn Harper. Kyle Morrisseau. And now, Jordan Wabasse.”
He then tells me the seven were hundreds of miles away from their home communities and families.
Each was forced to leave their reserve simply because there was no high school for them to attend.
“Going to high school is the right of every Canadian child,” says Stan, adding that these children are no different.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.