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'Things are shifting': Tanya Talaga sees change in Thunder Bay

Eight years ago Tanya Talaga began investigating the unsolved deaths of seven First Nation students who were living in Thunder Bay to attend high school. The author sees positive change in the city, but the work is far from over.

But the work is far from over, journalist and author says

Tanya Talaga is the author of Seven Fallen Feathers. (Vancouver Writers Festival)
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Eight years ago, Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga was sent on assignment to Thunder Bay. She went there with a plan of writing about why First Nation people weren't voting in the federal election. But when she arrived in the city she soon realized there was a bigger and more pressing story to tell. 

Talaga's investigation into the unsolved deaths of seven First Nation students who were living in Thunder Bay to attend high school, would become the focus of her work for almost a decade. 

I wish I could tell you the racist attacks against kids have stopped.- Tanya Talaga

Her book, Seven Fallen Feathers, is about seven teens who travelled to Thunder Bay to attend school, but it's also a story about the legacy of residential schools, intergenerational trauma, and broken treaties.

Thunder Bay is the urban hub for many surrounding First Nations, many of which are hours away by plane and don't have high schools for students to attend. 

So students must move to Thunder Bay to attend high school, leaving home for 10-month periods. For many, it is the first time they are away from their families for an extended length of time. 

Talaga's book detailed the circumstances that led to the deaths of seven First Nation students in Thunder Bay. In it, she documented the police investigations, some of which have been called "inadequate" and "problematic" by Ontario's police watchdog.

"I wish I could tell you the racist attacks against kids have stopped," Talaga said. "But they haven't.

"We still see … violence on the streets. We've still had children dying in the water. Children go missing."

Steps forward

But Talaga said there has also been positive change. The author spoke to Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild about developments at the Thunder Bay Public Library. The library "really stepped up," she explained, "and became this community hub."

The Matawa Education and Care Centre's new facility is "incredible," Talaga said. The Centre includes a residence, gym and a hockey program for the youth who attend school there. 

Jordan Wabasse, 15, was found dead on May 10, 2011. (CBC)
When Talaga first saw the new facility it was bittersweet, she said. One of the youth Talaga wrote about in her book, Jordan Wabasse, was a student at Matawa when he disappeared in 2011. 

"When I went to see it for the first time, it broke my heart," she said. "I was so happy for all the kids. But I just cried for Jordan."

As Thunder Bay continues to confront racism, Talaga is reminded of all the change that is still needed, she said, not just in Thunder Bay, but across Canada.

"Things are shifting," Talaga said. "[But] we always seem to make two steps forward and then it's 10 steps backward."