Sunday December 03, 2017

Seven Fallen Feathers: The story Tanya Talaga had to tell

Tanya Talaga highlights the lives of seven Indigenous students in Seven Fallen Feathers.

Tanya Talaga highlights the lives of seven Indigenous students in Seven Fallen Feathers. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star/House of Anansi)

Listen 12:17

When Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga went to Thunder Bay in 2011, it was to write a story about why First Nation people were not voting in the federal election.

But instead, she came across a more compelling, and important story: the deaths of seven First Nation students who were living in Thunder Bay to attend high school.

"I went to interview Stan Beardy, who was then the grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation … and I asked him about Indigenous voting patterns."

"While I was asking questions, he would look at me and ask me, 'Why is it you aren't writing a story about Jordan Wabasse?'"

After asking her question again, Beardy replied, "Jordan's been missing for 70 days," — prompting Talaga to change the story she was chasing.

"When [Beardy] told me that Jordan was the seventh student to die or go missing while in Thunder Bay, I couldn't believe it … because there were no proper schools for them in their home communities," said Talaga.

"It was then that I realized that I couldn't believe that this wasn't a bigger story, I mean why wasn't it having national media attention?"

Talaga started her research in the building where families from across northern Ontario were meeting to help coordinate the search for Jordan Wabasse.

"I was amazed because there were all these northern searchers were there, there were searchers from Cat Lake, there were searchers from his home community in Webequie, and they had put the flags up of their nations all over the inside of the office," said Talaga.

"There were grandmas in the corner making food for the searchers … I was just overwhelmed by the sense of community and love."

After doing a bit of research into Wabasse, Talaga realized that there was not enough room in a standard 800-word article to cover the complexity of the issue, which is why she decided to write the book, Seven Fallen Feathers.

"I just felt that people needed to know that this just wasn't a story about these seven kids, that this is a story about Canada … this is a story about so many things, about the legacy of the residential school system, of the fact that there are no schools for kids in northern communities," said Talaga.

Thunder Bay youth inquest Indigenous First Nations

The seven students who have died in Thunder Bay since 2000 are, from top left, Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15. (CBC)

Chanie's story rings true today

Included in Seven Fallen Feathers is the story of Chanie Wenjack, the young boy who ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in Kenora, Ont. in the fall of 1966, and later died of exposure along the railway tracks.

An inquest was held into Wenjack's death, and Talaga said that the jury asked, "Why is it that we have residential schools and we don't have schools in the community for the kids where they live?"

That question, Talaga said, still rings true in 2017.

"The story of Thunder Bay is really the story of Canada … broken treaties, residential schools, intergenerational trauma, and the failure to have equity for [First Nation] kids," said Talaga.

"Inside Thunder Bay you can see it's a microcosm of Canada, there's an undercurrent of subtle racism that runs through."