Q&A

Deaths of 7 Indigenous students in Thunder Bay the responsibility of all Canadians: author

The deaths of seven Indigenous students in Thunder Bay, Ont., are symbolic of Canada's failure to take care of Indigenous students, says the author of a book about the issue.

Journalist and author Tanya Talaga talks about her new book, Seven Fallen Feathers

'I want Canadians to understand ... these seven kids, they were all our responsibilities, they were Canada's responsibilities and we're continuing to fail our kids, our Indigenous kids specifically,' says author Tanya Talaga. (Steve Russell)

The deaths of seven Indigenous students in Thunder Bay, Ont., are symbolic of Canada's failure to take care of Indigenous students, says the author of a book about the issue.

Seven students sent to Thunder Bay to finish their education due to the lack of high schools in their home communities died between 2000 and 2011. Despite a 2015 inquest into their deaths, many of their families have no answers, says journalist and author Tanya Talaga.

Talaga's new book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, explores what happened to those students and why there are no answers. She spoke to CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon about her book.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

CBC: You went from Toronto to Thunder Bay to work on another story. It had to do with the federal election and Indigenous voters in 2011. But when you got there, your focus changed. What happened?

Tanya Tagala's Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City explores what happened to seven students who died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. (Submitted)

When I got there, I went to interview Stan Beardy — he was then the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization of 49 northern First Nations in Ontario. So I started to ask him questions about Indigenous voting patterns and the first time I asked him about it, he asked me "Why aren't you writing a story about Jordan Wabasse?"

And then I thought to myself, "Well, maybe he didn't hear my question." So I asked it again, and he looked at me and he said, "Jordan's been missing for 70 days."

And that's when he told me that Jordan was the seventh student to go missing or to die in Thunder Bay since 2000. And when he said that to me, when he said seven students, I was stunned. I didn't understand why that wasn't making national news headlines across the country.

CBC: What else did you learn about the other individuals that died in Thunder Bay? What did you discover in the work that you did there?

I visited the [Red Cross] command centre [set up during the search for Jordan Wabasse] and I saw all the people that were coming down from the northern communities — Jordan was from Webequie First Nation.

Sadly his body was found within about a month afterwards in the water. All the students, all seven of them, had left their northern homes, 500 to 600 kilometres away, to come by themselves to Thunder Bay to go to school. Five of them died in the waters surrounding Thunder Bay. Two died in their boarding homes.

They all didn't have a proper high school for them to go to and I just couldn't believe that in this day and age, we were still sending kids out of their communities, away from their languages and away from their parents to go live by themselves in boarding houses with people who are paid to look after them. It was just, it was stunning to me. How come in a country like Canada we don't have schools, high schools for kids to go to?

CBC: What did you learn about education across Canada?

It's broader than education, too. It has to do with Jordan's Principle [a principle that says when a jurisdictional dispute arises over paying for services for First Nations children, the first government to be contacted should pay, with arguments over jurisdiction to be sorted out later].

It has to do with equity with Indigenous kids and the services they're receiving in their home communities. The level of social services, health services and education are not up to par with non-Indigeous kids. Almost every Indigenous student receives about $2,000 to $3,000 less in funding than a non-Indigenous student.

Many Indigenous groups are now doing their own curriculums, doing their own schooling, but the problem is that you don't have enough money, if you're not given a fair funding model, you're starting behind already and that's what a lot of Indigenous educators, that's what they're all facing. That's not fair.

CBC: How should this story in Thunder Bay affect Canadians? Some people might say, "It's not happening in my neck of the woods. Why should I be concerned about this?"

But it is. You see it with the death of Colten Bushie [a 22-year-old Saskatchewan man whose shooting death on a rural property near Biggar, Sask., ignited racial tensions in the province].

You see it with [missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls] and Winnipeg has been an epicenter of that, sadly.

You see all the same problems, you see broken treaties, treaties that were signed between nations many years ago and the deal hasn't been done. People aren't living up to their end of the bargain. Canada isn't.

You see the effects of the residential school system throughout the entire country. Residential schools have left intergenerational trauma, you see it with so many families. And in the child welfare system, you see it in the prisons. It's remarkable. And that is actually Canada's really true history, and that's not just Thunder Bay, that's the whole country.

CBC: Did the family members have anything to say about the book? Did they share their thoughts with you?

The families were a big help to me writing this book, and I could not write this book if it was not for their voices.

I want Canadians to understand that by reading this book, these seven kids, they were all our responsibilities.- Tanya Talaga

We sent the chapters to the families and asked them to read them because we wanted to get their opinions and it was really, really helpful. I mean, [the mother of Jordan Anderson, after whom Jordan's Principle is named] said to me, 'You know, you've got three mistakes here,' and she listed them where they were and that was a big help.

It was really important, because I really feel that this book is the result of many hands. It's not just me, it's the families that wrote this too, it's their voices and I hoped that I honoured them with the book.

There's so many questions left unanswered. It's hard for them.

CBC: What do you want people to think about, or take away, after they read your book?

I hope it adds to the greater conversation that's happening now in Canada surrounding reconciliation. The effects of intergenerational trauma are massive and they're everywhere.

I want Canadians to understand that by reading this book, these seven kids, they were all our responsibilities, they were Canada's responsibilities and we're continuing to fail our kids, our Indigenous kids specifically.

That has to change. It's not right.

With files from CBC's Radio Noon