Canada's indifference to the deaths of seven First Nations teenagers is 'just plain racism': Tanya Talaga
One of the first things I am asked after someone has heard me speak about Seven Fallen Feathers, the book I wrote about the deaths of seven First Nations high school students in Thunder Bay, is, "Have things changed?"
That question is usually posed by a non-Indigenous person and I never know how to properly respond. I can always tell by the look of disbelief in their eyes that they can't really comprehend that the Canada they know — one of bounty, universal healthcare and a place where anything seems possible — has such a woeful, fractured and violent past concerning the treatment of Indigenous Peoples. It is a past that bleeds into the present.
They do not want to believe that the Canada they live in, one known for standing up for human rights abroad, could ever have Indian Residential Schools, or an Indian Act governing the lives of every government-sanctioned First Nation person, or broken just about every treaty it has signed. They don't want to believe that in the first half of 2020, as Canadians took to the streets to demonstrate against the police killing of George Floyd, half-a-dozen Indigenous people had died in altercations with police in this country.
Have things changed? My response to that question is usually this: "Our people are still dying in the waters and on the streets of Thunder Bay."
That is a hard truth Canadians have a hard time facing.
I have written two books examining racism and genocide in this country.
The first was Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City. It is about the lives and deaths of seven First Nations teens from 2000 to 2011. Each of the youth were in Thunder Bay, away from their small, mostly fly-in communities, separated from their parents, their friends and everything they knew, just so they could get a high school education. Five of the students, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse, were found in Thunder Bay rivers. Two students, Paul Panacheese and Robyn Harper, died in their boarding homes.
After the inquest into the deaths of the Seven Feathers concluded in June, 2016, with more than 145 recommendations made after eight months of testimony, change is still a long way from reality for First Nations people in Northern Ontario. Inquests can't change the world, they can't bring justice for the families – inquests were never designed to assign blame, they are meant to learn from the dead in order to protect the living.
The documentary film Mashkawi-Manidoo Bimaadiziwin Spirit to Soar, revisits what has happened in Thunder Bay since the inquest ended. It looks at that question I am so often asked, "Are things getting any better?"
- Watch Mashkawi-Manidoo Bimaadiziwin Spirit to Soar on CBC Gem. An Anishinaabemowin language version is available on CBC Gem.
In November, 2016, shortly after the inquest concluded, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, an off-shoot of the Ontario Attorney General's office, moved in to investigate the Thunder Bay Police. That investigation, Broken Trust: Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service, led by Dr. Gerry McNeilly, analyzed 37 police investigations. The probe discovered "systemic racism" was present in the force and made 44 recommendations including the re-opening of nine sudden death investigations because of deficiencies in how the cases were handled.
Four of those investigations are of the Seven Fallen Feathers. A multi-disciplinary task force was put together to re-investigate the cases of Jethro Anderson, 15, Kyle Morrisseau, 17, Curran Strang, 18 and Jordan Wabasse, 15. And now, the families, Thunder Bay and Canada wait for the results of those death investigations.
When I asked the now-retired Senator Murray Sinclair, who also investigated the Thunder Bay Police Services Board after the inquest at Ontario's request, if he had any faith in the new multidisciplinary task force investigations, he said, "No."
Sinclair's pointed answer said it all. But Sinclair explained, "It is because the resistance level is so unspoken, so present. The willingness to blame the Indigenous victim was huge in Thunder Bay. It probably still is. I'd be surprised if it has changed quickly. I'm sure they'd say it has changed but I'd be surprised if there was any significant change in that attitude," he said. "That is an ingrained attitude and that attitude was allowed to permeate the system within the Thunder Bay Police Force." The police board is responsible for making those changes, but according to Sinclair, "They didn't even see it as a problem."
The message, repeatedly over decades, to Indigenous Peoples in Thunder Bay is that they are less than worthy victims, and that their deaths don't warrant a competent investigation. That isn't systemic racism at work. It is just plain racism. How is the Indigenous community in Thunder Bay supposed to believe that anything has changed?
And Thunder Bay is not the only place this has happened. A civilian review of the RCMP investigation into the death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Red Pheasant Cree Nation man who was shot and killed by farmer Gerald Stanley on a Saskatchewan farm in 2016, was released it showed officers degraded Colten's mom Debbie Baptiste. The report had 47 findings and made 17 recommendations on how the RCMP handled the investigation into Boushie's death. The review admonished police for procedural errors, such as leaving evidence outside in the elements but also for smelling Ms. Baptiste's breath, in her own home, moments after they told her that her son was dead. They treated Boushie's mother like a criminal.
Indigenous Peoples across Canada, not just in Thunder Bay, don't want any more reports, royal commissions or investigations to tell us what we already know. The institutions created by the Canadian state, the bureaucracies, the policies and the programs that were formed to run Canada were never created with Indigenous Peoples in mind. They were created to build the country of Canada for those who came here to settle the lands that already belonged to someone else – the Indigenous Peoples who have lived on Turtle Island for tens of thousands of years.
How many times must we rediscover the same problems, over and over, in police forces, in governments and institutions before we understand Canadians and its systems of government are the problem?
There is a belief in Canada that if you just wait it out, things will get better. That never happens. Waiting on time never works. And if you are indifferent as a community when those coming to access the job market in your city become homeless on the streets, or when children who come from out of town to go to high school or college in your city begin to die, what does that say about you as a society? There is a violence to Canada's historic indifference.
In one of the most poignant moments of Spirit to Soar, CBC journalist Jody Porter, who covered the inquest into the deaths of the seven every single day for eight months, said, "We don't know how to put into context what we are doing here. We are the raw edge of that existential angst of what it is to be a Canadian. When your presence is so deadly to the people whose land you live on."
In 2018, I was the CBC Massey Lecturer, and I travelled to five cities across Canada, speaking about my second book, All our Relations: Finding the Path Forward. Those lectures centred on the violent separation of our people from the land, the tearing-apart of our families and the spiritual separation that ensues – making us feel as though we don't belong. But nothing could be further from the truth. Indigenous Peoples belong. We have always been here and we are not going anywhere.
Our path forward must come from within, drawing on the knowledge inside of us that has sustained us for thousands of years. Canada must decide if it can honestly shed its colonial oppression and bravely chart a new course forward, walking beside us.
Mashkawi-Manidoo Bimaadiziwin Spirit to Soar, now streaming on CBC Gem. An Anishinaabemowin language version is available on CBC Gem.
Spirit to Soar: Where We Come From is a limited-run podcast companion to the documentary. This four-part podcast is told first in Anishinaabemowin by Elder Sam Achneepineskum and then in English by Jolene Banning.