Why Tanya Talaga chose to tell a story others ignored

Journalist Tanya Talaga discusses her book Seven Fallen Feathers, which was 2017 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction finalist.
Tanya Talaga highlights the lives of seven Indigenous students in Seven Fallen Feathers. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star/House of Anansi)

Some authors write important books, while some write gripping stories. Tanya Talaga has accomplished both in her new book Seven Fallen Feathers. It's about seven students who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay, Ont. between 2000 and 2011.

They were: Jordan Wabasse, Kyle Morrisseau, Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Paul Panacheese, Reggie Bushie and Jethro Anderson. All of them had left their home community, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, to attend school. Tanya writes about each of them — and what their families experienced and endured when they were lost. 

Defining what's newsworthy 

"I knew that a story on a 15-year-old missing boy was not going to make the news. Jordan had been missing for about 70 days at that point. It was a long time, but, still, that wouldn't have made the news in Toronto. It wasn't until Stan Beardy, the then Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, mentioned that Jordan was the seventh child to be missing or to die while at school in Thunder Bay since the year 2000. That's when I really understood what he was saying. That was an incredible moment because it changed the rest of my reporting career."

A different kind of student life 

"You have to keep in mind that these are kids. They are attending high school away from their families, away from their culture. For many of them, English was not their first language. This was a foreign place for them. They came from communities of 300 to 1,200 people. They are leaving their families, their communities and everything they know to live in a boarding home. They have to learn everything — how to cross the road with traffic signals, how to ride a bus and how to look confident when you are walking down the street so nobody bothers you. These are the things they have to get to know. They're really just kids."   

The story behind the title 

"The title of Seven Fallen Feathers is not mine. The title was suggested by Kyle Morrisseau's father, Christian. Kyle was one of the seven to die. He was found in the water. To be found in the water is quite remarkable as Indigenous kids are water savvy. Yet five of the seven were found in the water surrounding Thunder Bay. The inquest into their deaths never heard a reason as to how the five got into the water in the first place — that is still a question that Thunder Bay has. Kyle was from Keewaywin First Nation in northwestern Ontario. Christian Morrisseau is a painter and at the end of the inquest, he painted the most beautiful mural that is on the cover of the book. The mural shows the seven students and it's a passage of the students to the afterlife. We are still seeing kids today winding up in the water. I hope that it just ends." 

Tanya Talaga's comments have been edited and condensed.