by Tanya Talaga
Here we are again: race relations in Thunder Bay. I’m really having a hard time determining where to start with this one, and probably not just because of its sensitive nature, but because of the uneasy feeling I’m left with when I dwell on it for too long. I think it has a lot to do with terrible, racist things I’ve said and sincerely thought over the years. I mean, I’m trying my best to do better, but I still struggle to overcome my personal ignorance. Besides, my past is still a part of me, and it’s not easy to admit how ugly that part of me may have been. And it’s not easy picking up a book like Talaga’s, one that reminds you of this ugly side, but it’s an important book to try to get through with an honest attempt at understanding if we actually want to fix the problem.
Talaga, an award-winning investigative journalist, came to Thunder Bay in the middle of the 2011 federal election with the intention of writing an article about Indigenous Canadians’ untapped ability to swing the vote. When she sat down with Stan Beardy, Nishnawbe Aski Nation’s grand chief, he had little interest in her line of questioning, instead bringing up Jordan Wabasse, a young Indigenous student who went missing seventy-one days beforehand. Wabasse’s body was eventually recovered from the Kaministiqua River, making him the seventh student from Thunder Bay’s Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School––a school for teens from remote reserves across Northwestern Ontario and the Far North––to die in just eleven years. Seven Fallen Feathers is Talaga’s telling of the students’ lives before leaving their tiny, remote communities for Northwestern Ontario’s largest city; the details known or speculated on regarding the events surrounding their deaths; and the eventual coroner’s inquest into the police investigations, including the perceived racism in the way the cases were handled.
Talaga presents the historical context for the racial tension locally as well as nationally, discussing the residential school system’s lasting legacy of trauma, the seeds of mistrust sown in the Indigenous communities toward governments continually ignoring recommendations aimed at mending fractured relations and bettering Indigenous lives, and a justice system that continually ignores Indigenous pleas for help. But she always returns her narrative to the Seven. The author talks to friends and relatives of the teens, as well as members of reservations in the region. This not only gives a sense of where the students came from––whether they individually came from functional families or broken homes, all the remote communities grapple with significant issues, with boil water advisories, a lack of adequate housing, and ill-equipped schools affecting the majority, but some also dealing with suicide epidemics and widespread childhood addictions––it also keeps them human, and this is imperative to the book’s success. For it’s far too easy to emotionally dissociate from tragedies such as these, to treat these deaths as statistics rather than people. But it was people, and Talaga makes the case that they and their families deserve to discover why this happened so that we can prevent it in the future, so that this tragedy doesn’t have to be a pointless one.
While the government and police services get the majority of the criticism within these pages, Seven Fallen Feathers is less about directing the blame at one group and more about a collective failure of our society to protect and support these teens in order to give them a chance to live a normal and fulfilling life. Talaga argues that there must be a better way to offer Indigenous children a good education than forcing them to leave their families to live with strangers in a strange, hostile city. Though we still seem far from any meaningful way forward on this front, I find it hard to disagree with her, and I find myself putting down her book feeling the need to do more to help, to do better.