In 1907, Duncan Campbell Scott, the superintendent of the Indian Act, turned down a request from the chief medical officer of Canada for additional funding to improve conditions in certain residential schools where 25 per cent of students had died. The money would violate a policy “geared towards a final solution of our Indian Problem,” Scott wrote. In 2017, Health Canada denied the Wapekeka First Nation, which had recently experienced death by suicide of seven girls, $376,706 to hire a mental-health team. The request came at an “awkward time,” the government explained. The language may have been refined and made less genocidal in the intervening century, but systemic discrimination is a cyclical fact in Indigenous lives.
What makes Tanya Talaga’s All Our Relations, this year’s entry in the CBC Massey Lectures series, an essential work of non-fiction is the author’s ability to draw such parallels between the past and the present. Through storytelling, on-the-ground reporting, literature surveys, and plenty of statistics, Talaga demonstrates the extent to which Indigenous children continue to live under the full weight of colonial history. Little wonder, then, that suicide and self-harm are the leading causes of death among First Nations youth in Canada today.
Some of this material returns to ground covered in depth in the author’s phenomenal 2017 volume Seven Fallen Feathers, but here Talaga widens her lens to take in youth suicide in Indigenous communities in Brazil, the U.S., Australia, and Norway and other Scandinavian countries where the Sami people (formerly known as the Lapps) have lived for millennia. The practice of separating Indigenous people from their lands, languages, and traditions in the guise of “civilizing” them or saving their souls has repeated throughout modern history. The residential schools and the Sixties Scoop in Canada have an even darker counterpart in Brazil, where the demand for rubber in the 1950s led to the establishment of plantations on lands whose Indigenous inhabitants were exterminated.
The global approach makes All Our Relations read like a survey at times, but there’s enough substance in each of its five chapters to make it one of the more satisfying Massey Lectures of recent years. What fascinates Talaga – and gives credence to the book’s subtitle – are the many women and men from Indigenous communities who have taken it upon themselves to help those affected by the trauma of colonization and dispossession. Talaga’s stories from a remote Sami community in the Arctic Circle offer more than colourful scenes by a rugged reporter; they highlight a case study for suicide prevention in which the therapeutic model is based on traditional teachings and a holistic understanding of who the Sami youth are.
The Canadian context, for reasons of time or proximity, is where Talaga devotes the bulk of her research and her rage. All children, she writes, “need to know who their ancestors are, who their heroes and villains are.” In All Our Relations, Talaga restores that basic right to Indigenous children who have been robbed of it. And the rest of us, as an epigraph from author Thomas King makes clear, no longer have the excuse of saying we haven’t heard this story. Talaga alone has told it twice now.