As It Happens

Tanya Talaga explores racism in Thunder Bay and her own Indigenous roots in Spirit To Soar

The documentary film Spirit To Soar follows journalist Tanya Talaga as she connects with her roots in Thunder Bay while exploring the aftermath of the deaths of seven Indigenous youth.

The documentary — a follow to the 2017 book Seven Fallen Feathers — is now streaming on CBC Gem.

Journalist Tanya Talaga stands directly across from Animikii Wajiw, a mountain on Fort William First Nation, her grandmother’s community. This is where Jordan Wabasse's body was found in the spring of 2011. (Sean Stiller/Spirit to Soar)

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This article was originally published on May 3, 2021.

Tanya Talaga has dropped all pretence of being a dispassionate, objective news reporter, unaffected by the stories she tells.

The Anishinaabe/Polish journalist has spent the last 10 years covering the deaths of seven Indigenous youths in Thunder Bay, Ont., and the racism that has mired the investigations into those deaths. In doing so, she has reconnected with her own Indigenous identity and embraced the way it shapes her journalism.

"It's clearly the path forward for me. There's no other choice," Talaga told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"When you are touched by all of these events, when you were touched by colonization, when you've had the experiences that we've had, how can I not stand up and speak out? How can I not write from this perspective? There's really no choice here for me. And the more I move in that direction, the more right it feels."

A new documentary follows Talaga as she connects with her roots in Thunder Bay while exploring the aftermath of the deaths of Jethro Anderson, Reggie Bushie, Robyn Harper, Kyle Morrisseau, Paul Panacheese, Curran Strang and Jordan Wabasse. 

Spirit To Soar, directed by Talaga and Michelle Derosier, premiered at the Toronto Hot Docs film festival and is now streaming on CBC Gem. An Anishinaabemowin language version is available on CBC Gem. 

The documentary serves as a followup to Seven Fallen Feathers, Talaga's 2017 book about the deaths. 

Spirit To Soar follows the aftermath of the deaths of seven students in Thunder Bay, Ont. 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)

Talaga's work in Thunder Bay began 10 years ago when she was a provincial politics reporter for the Toronto Star. She'd been sent to the Northwestern Ontario city to cover Indigenous voting in the 2011 federal election. 

But when she met with Stan Beardy, then-grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, he asked why she wasn't instead writing about Jordan Wabasse, a missing 15-year-old boy from Webequie First Nation whose body was later found in the Kaministiquia River.

Talaga was shocked to discover that Wabasse was one of seven Indigenous students who had died under mysterious circumstances in Thunder Bay. Five were found in rivers. All had been ruled accidental or undetermined. 

"How come this wasn't being covered? How come this wasn't at the top of all the news cycles?" she said. "You think to yourself, this can't be. I mean, there must be some satellite news truck hiding around the corner. And there was nothing."

The documentary was directed by Michelle Derosier, left, and Talaga, right. (Hot Docs)

She says it really struck home for her when Beardy took her to the river where Jordan Wabasse was last seen, and where his remains were later found. There she saw Mount McKay looming on the horizon. Called Animikii Wajiw, or Thunder Mountain, in Ojibwe, it stands on the Fort William First Nation, her maternal grandmother's community. 

"It was like something had hit my stomach," she said.

"We have a deep connection to land and to place and to water, and being there and knowing that this is where the searchers from Cat Lake believe that he had last been seen, it was just this overpowering feeling of: I have to write this story, you know. We have to tell the story. We have to scream this story from the rooftops and we have to tell people what's happening here."

  • Watch: Tanya Talaga in a clip from Spirit To Soar:

Tanya Talaga on why she investigated the deaths of Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay

2 years ago
Duration 0:42

Talaga and other reporters helped draw mainstream attention to the crisis in Thunder Bay. Since then, a 2015-16 inquest into the deaths made recommendations for improving the quality of life for Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay.

In 2019, police re-opened investigations into four of the deaths, as well as five others, after a review by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director found racism on the police force stymied the original probes. 

In Spirit To Soar, Talaga and Derosier interview the victims' family members, local Indigenous leaders, and students who — like the seven young people who died — had to travel hundreds of kilometres from home just to attend high school in Thunder Bay. 

In one scene, a group of First Nations girls at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School describe living in fear and constantly looking over their shoulders in Thunder Bay.

"I wanted to really focus the film on the bravery of the kids, the bravery of the youth," Talaga said.

"Imagine what it's like at 13, 14, 15 to travel from a community that's 400, 500, 600 kilometres away. And you come in to town and you're alone and you're walking down the street and someone calls you a name, tells you to go back to where you're from. The ultimate irony being, well, this is actually Indigenous land. This is where we're from."

In this still from Spirit To Soar, First Nations students from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay sing with the band July Talk. (Sean Stiller/Spirit to Soar)

Talaga says her ultimate goal is to make Canada a better place for those kids and others like them.   

"We have to make the world, we have to make Thunder Bay, we've got to make Canada a safer place for all of our children. Think of how great this country could be if every single child was given the same chance at life, the same chance to go to high school in a community that loves and welcomes them, a high school in your own community," she said.

"Why is it that we still have our kids in the North having to fly into Timmins and Thunder Bay and Sioux Lookout to go to high school? Why is it they don't have access to doctors or to nurses or to clean running water? You know, we have to fight for that change."

In order to do that, she says all Canadians need to follow her lead and drop the pretence that this story — and all stories about the devastating effects of colonialism — has nothing to do with them. 

"You can pass all the policies and the laws that you want in the world. But if the people don't stand up and say we need to change — and I mean all the people — we won't achieve anything."

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. 

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