The true essence of Tanya Talaga’s new book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City, is evident from its front cover: strong black lines and deep colours capture seven children as they pass into the spirit world, guided by the family members who have gone before them.
The book recounts the stories of seven Indigenous high school students who died in Thunder Bay, Ontario, between 2000 and 2011. Its cover represents a vision that came to artist Christian Morrisseau – father of one of the students. Morrisseau learned to paint at the hand of his father, Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau. “I felt so honoured I could use it,” Talaga says of the painting.
Talaga, who is of mixed Polish and Indigenous descent, felt a deep sense of pain writing a book about the mysterious unresolved deaths of the seven teenagers – particularly given that the community affected is her own. Her maternal grandmother is Ojibwa, a member of Fort William First Nation, and Talaga’s great-grandmother is a residential school survivor.*
“I think this book found me,” Talaga says, when asked why she felt compelled to write Seven Fallen Feathers (House of Anansi Press). In the first chapter she recounts a critical moment sitting across from Stan Beardy, then grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization that represents most First Nations communities in Ontario. Talaga, a journalist with the Toronto Star, describes how she flew to Thunder Bay in 2011 to report on Indigenous concerns regarding that year’s federal election. She pressed Beardy for comment, but he refused. Instead, he asked, “Why aren’t you doing a story on Jordan Wabasse? He has been gone for 71 days now.”
Wabasse, a 15-year-old star hockey player, had disappeared on Feb. 7, 2011. He was the seventh teenager to disappear in Thunder Bay while attending high school in the city, hundreds of kilometres away from the remote First Nations community where access to education is limited. The case went largely unreported. Beardy’s response, and his refusal to answer Talaga’s questions about Prime Minister Stephen Harper, initially annoyed the journalist. “I knew a missing Grade 9 Indigenous student in Thunder Bay would not make news in urban Toronto,” she says in the book. But then Talaga began to listen: “I remembered my manners and where I was. I was sitting with the elected grand chief of 45,000 people, and he was clearly trying to tell me something.”
Talaga says the grand chief took her down to the area where Wabasse was found in the Kaministiquia River, behind Mount McKay. She was shocked. It was an area she knew well, from numerous summer visits to her grandmother’s reserve. “It was unbelievable to me – as a mother of two teenagers, as a women, and as someone of Indigenous background,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to explore that and tell people about it … in more than a news article would allow me to.” But Seven Feathers – Talaga’s first book after more than 20 years working in print journalism – goes beyond raising awareness of a long and ugly history that’s been all but ignored. “I want to honour the seven students,” she says.
“I want Canadians to understand that the right to send their child to high school doesn’t really exist for a lot of Indigenous communities in the north. Often it’s a choice between survival and education.”
A significant portion of Talaga’s book focuses on systemic failures on the part of the government, the police, and the justice system to address education, health, and security issues within the Indigenous community. The book also focuses on lesser-known abuses that took place in residential schools, including the use of Indigenous children as subjects for starvation experiments.
It wasn’t until she in was her 20s that Talaga began to realize her family history was different from those of her friends and colleagues in Toronto. “When I was a girl, my mom would take my brother and I up to Thunder Bay in the summertime,” she says. “We would drive to the middle of nowhere. I was totally raised in the city and I would hate it. It was a culture shock.” The pieces started to fall together for her, she says, as she began to see the inter-generational trauma. “My mother’s three brothers had gone into the child welfare system and had come back. My sister, who had been given up for adoption, also came back to us.
“I feel there’s a layer of racism against Indigenous people that will always run through Canadian society,” Talaga says. “It’s starting to finally be realized and acknowledged. But it’s taking a long time.”
*Correction Aug. 1: An earlier version of this profile erroneously stated that Talaga’s grandmother is a residential school survivor.