Indigenous

Q&A: Tanya Talaga on writing All Our Relations and delivering a Massey lecture in Thunder Bay

After the release of her award winning book Seven Fallen Feathers, Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga became the first Ojibway woman to deliver the CBC Massey Lectures, where she takes a look at the crisis of Indigenous youth suicide.

'They weren't just lectures. It was more about community. It was more about people coming together'

Toronto Star reporter and award-winning author Tanya Talaga delivers the 2018 CBC Massey Lectures, All Our Relations. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Toronto Star journalist Tanya Talaga, author of Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, is the first Ojibway woman to deliver the CBC Massey Lectures, in a series of cities across Canada.

She was also selected for the 2017-2018 Toronto Star Atkinson fellowship. Through the lectures, fellowship and accompanying book, titled All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, Talaga examines systemic issues within health care and how intergenerational trauma from colonization is fuelling the humanitarian crisis of Indigenous youth suicide.

The recorded Massey lectures will air on CBC Radio the week of Nov. 12.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How are you feeling after the lectures?

A: I feel tired but it feels really good actually. In every city we went, Indigenous people came out. It was amazing and really lovely to see. It made me feel good, too, when I was on stage and would look into the crowd and see people that I know. In Saskatoon, [former Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak grand chief] Sheila North Wilson came and I was like, 'Oh my God, there's Sheila' and she's right in the second row. She said one of the pieces of art behind me on stage had the names of some of her relatives. It's an art piece done by Dennis Frank Cromarty student and it says #NoJustice. It's a constant reminder of what the lectures were. They weren't just lectures. It was more about community. It was more about people coming together.

Q: What was your reaction when you were asked to do the Massey Lectures?

A: First off I was like, are you sure you got the right person? My two editors asked me to go out for dinner and I actually thought I was in some trouble about something. That's when they said 'you're going to be asked to be a Massey lecturer.' I'm like... 'What?' And then I thought 'Well, you mean for next year?' They're like no, for this year. Then when I went home and researched it because I knew about the Massey Lectures and I read Thomas King's [Massey Lectures] book The Truth About Stories. It's a book that I actually turned to quite a bit. The Massey Lectures weren't really in my wheelhouse of expectations or possibilities. I accepted because I knew that it was a platform and it would be an opportunity to spread a message.

The lectures have been published in book form.

Q: How did the Massey Lectures blend with your Atkinson Fellowship research?

A: I was in the last month of finishing the book [Seven Fallen Feathers] and the applications were due for the Atkinson Fellowship. I was knee deep in end notes, last-minute rewrites and also another chapter was coming which I didn't realize at the time. 

The application process is longish. You have to be detailed and give them an idea of what exactly you want to do, an outline of where you see it going and it has to include something that changes public policy or helps move the dial. It can't be something you think of in the middle of the night.

In my mind I always wanted to do something on suicide with youth. I've been writing about this for at least seven years. It was always something that I thought we're not telling this the right way. I wanted to go back to it, so that's what I focused on. And that application was the basis of the Masseys.

Q: How did this compare to the writing of Seven Fallen Feathers?

A: They're all connected. All Our Relations actually is a book. While it's a book of lectures, it's a book. I had to write it like that. It's an extension of Seven Fallen Feathers, which looked at the education system and its failures after colonization. This was the logical extension — failures of the health system after colonization, which continue and are just as abhorrent as education [failures], if not worse. 

Q: What does it mean to you to be the first Ojibway woman to do the lectures?

A: There's a responsibility to tell stories. That's not an easy thing to do. It's hard and I hope that I do this with the blessings of the community. When you write, when you come from an Ojibway or and Indigenous angle, you write with community. You write making sure everyone is OK. I've said this before and I borrow this again from Duncan McCue: don't be a story taker. I never want to be that way because these are the people that I write about, the people I care about, the people that I know. Their voices haven't been heard largely in the way that they may want to tell the story. With All Our Relations I sent chapters out just like I did with Seven Fallen Feathers to people that were involved in the book and said "Is this alright? Is this good?" It's a collective effort and that's what community is.

Tanya Talaga receives a standing ovation after delivering her first Massey Lecture in Thunder Bay. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

Q: What it was like to deliver the first lecture in Thunder Bay?

A: It was so beautiful and so hard. Leading up to Thunder Bay, I just kept thinking how am I going to do this? We also said if I'm going to do the Massey lectures, I want to start in Thunder Bay. It's really important because this is not just about a lecture, this Is about community and I know this community will come out.

And I know that Seven Fallen Feathers has been so divisive in parts of the Thunder Bay community. It was kind of like scratching a wound. Some people disagree with It. But the Indigenous support behind the book was massive and remarkable and important. It's where my mother's from, it's where my grandma was from. It's where all my grandmas are from, from the traditional lands of Fort William First Nation.

I was so lucky to have Sam Achneepineskum traveling with me because he's my Elder. I said to the CBC, I've got to have an Elder travelling with me because this is a lot of work and it's emotionally exhausting. Every time I get on stage and do this and talk about this, it's heavy and it's hard. Before every lecture I would sit with Sam for about 10 minutes and we would talk and smudge.

Right before Thunder Bay, everybody was out there and you could almost hear the hum of the of the community auditorium because it seats 1,500 people. More than that came: 1,900 people were there. And this by far was the largest speech I've ever given in my life. They let four hundred people stand in the theatre and they were also standing in the lobby. Alvin [Fiddler] was the last person to talk to me before I went out. And he's like 'everybody's here, we got this.'

So I went out there and I looked and I couldn't believe it. There were people everywhere. And then I heard the [Nishnawbe Aski Nation] Drum. It was so important that the entire community of Thunder Bay hear that drum because that's who we are. This was very much an Anishinaabe event. This was unity and resilience. I was so emotional and heavy on so many levels. It was the biggest night of my life, easy.

Q: What's next?

A: I'm going back [to The Toronto Star] as a national columnist. I'm going to write twice a week. It's a platform. It's the best place for me to be at this moment I think because it keeps me in writing, in being there and talking to people in the community and that's the basis of what I do.

About the Author

Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at rhiannon.johnson@cbc.ca and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.