Tanya Talaga on her new book, and race relations in Thunder Bay

Talaga stopped by CBC Indigenous this week to talk about her book, the deaths of First Nations students in Thunder Bay, and race relations in the northern Ontario city.

Seven Fallen Feathers focuses on the deaths of 7 First Nations students in the city

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

Journalist Tanya Talaga was in Thunder Bay, Ont., covering the 2011 federal election for the Toronto Star when a man she was interviewing told her there was a much more important story being missed.

Talaga, an Anishinaabe investigative journalist whose family is from Fort William First Nation, was writing about why Indigenous people weren't participating in the vote.

She was interviewing former Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy, who wasn't interested in talking about the election.

"He looked at me and said, why aren't you doing a story on Jordan Wabasse?" said Talaga.

The journalist continued to press the chief on the election, and he just wasn't interested.

"Jordan has been missing for 70 days," replied the chief.

He told her Wabasse, 15, was the seventh student to go missing or to die while at school in Thunder Bay since 2000. Talaga couldn't believe that wasn't making national headlines.

It was that encounter that inspired her to write the book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City.

Talaga stopped by CBC Indigenous this week to talk about her book, the deaths of First Nations students in Thunder Bay, and race relations in the northern Ontario city.

Racism in Thunder Bay

​In Northern Ontario, students often have to leave home, travelling hundreds of kilometres, to go to high school in Sioux Lookout or Thunder Bay.

"The point of the matter is it's 2017, and we still don't have proper high schools for Indigenous kids where they live, that's astounding," said Talaga.

"They're by themselves. They're leaving their communities, their language, their culture." 

For many of the youth who come from small communities, leaving home is not only a culture shock but also opens them up to experiencing racism.

"Every single student I've spoken to tells a story of racism," said Talaga.

Many of the students living in Thunder Bay have said that they have had garbage thrown at them, or people yell racist slurs from moving vehicles.

"If it hasn't happened to them, it's happened to their friend or someone they know."

Microcosm of Canada

When asked whether she thought Thunder Bay was the most racist city in Canada, Talaga replied "every city is racist."

"Every city has a lot of issues," she said.

"Thunder Bay has the most hate crimes according to Statistics Canada, but this [book] could be a story in any city in Canada.

"Thunder Bay is almost a microcosm of what is happening across Canada."

But Talaga says Thunder Bay is still a city that she loves.

She said a volunteer search group called the Bear Clan Patrol has been operating in the city, and has been keeping an eye on the waters, where many First Nations students have been found dead.

She also acknowledges there are a lot of non-Indigenous people that are following the news coverage and are committed to making the city a better place to live for everyone.

She said 10 per cent of the proceeds from every book purchased will go to a fund to help students at Daniel Franklin Cromarty high school in Thunder Bay, where .

About the Author

Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He is the co-founder of Red Rising Magazine and has been an associate producer with the CBC's Indigenous unit since 2016. Follow him on Twitter: @Lenardmonkman1