Books·How I Wrote It

Why Tanya Talaga wrote a book about the lives and deaths of 7 Indigenous students in Thunder Bay

The journalist and author talks about how she wrote Seven Fallen Feathers, which is a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Tanya Talaga highlights the lives of seven Indigenous students in Seven Fallen Feathers. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star/House of Anansi)

Tanya Talaga is an award-winning investigative journalist for the Toronto Star and the author of Seven Fallen Feathers. The book, a finalist for the 2017 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction, is about seven Indigenous high school students who died in Thunder Bay, Ont. 

The students were hundreds of kilometres away from home, forced to attend school in the northern city and were ultimately found dead in the region. Talaga's book is a factual, comprehensive and emotional read about the injustice Indigenous communities face on a daily basis. 

In her own words, Talaga tells CBC Books how she wrote Seven Fallen Feathers.

Shining a light

"The idea to write this book first came to me in 2011. I was in Thunder Bay as a journalist, covering another story on the Canadian federal election about why Indigenous people were not planning on voting. I interviewed the then Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation Stan Beardy and we had an interesting conversation. I was asking him about the election and he was telling me about Jordan Wabasse, who at the time was the seventh teen to go missing and his body had not been found.

"Beardy wanted to know why I wasn't covering that story and I decided to be more respectful and listen to what he was saying. That's when the lightbulb went on. I started to write stories about these seven individuals. I remember being at the command centre during the search for Jordan. It was an overwhelming feeling that this was a deeper story, more than just something for the newspaper. This is something so much more."

Getting the details right

"Writing a book takes a lot out of you. I had to be physically and mentally prepared to get the details right. I remember starting it the day after the inquest [into the deaths of the seven Indigenous teenagers]. That was the end of June of 2016 and I wrote the entire book in a year. I wrote it in chunks; sometimes I would just sit and things would come to me and I would write it down. 

"Writing it was not easy — sometimes I was just staring at the computer or staring at my cat or staring at the fridge. It's hard, but then something just clicks, like pieces of evidence or information from the inquest exhibits, which are very much the research backbone of this book." 

Emotionally invested

"I think you have to be emotionally invested and the story of the seven students is pretty close to me for a variety of reasons. I was standing with Stan Beardy at the Kaministiquia River and I remember looking at Mount McKay just looming in front of us. That mountain is the spiritual centre for Fort William First Nation, which is where my own grandmother is from. It was like someone smacked me in the gut — I was thinking about my mother's upbringing here and also about all the First Nation children who had to travel so far away.

"I was thinking about being a mother myself. I can't imagine having to send them 500 kilometres away to go to school. I find it incredibly difficult to fathom that we don't have school for Indigenous kids in their communities. This isn't right. I knew I had to write this book. I had to do it."

Tanya Talaga's comments have been edited and condensed.