Nominated for the Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction in Canada, Tanya Talaga’s book explores the situation which led to the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students in the Thunder Bay area, five of them in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior.
The sense of northern community which might be hard for contemporary urban readers to understand. “The north may stretch out over a huge, underpopulated geological land mass of boreal forest, but the people who live there are all connected. They are connected through the land and the rivers and each other.” So, when a student disappeared, Indigenous people from hundreds of miles away, from other bands, came south, to the northern city of Thunder Bay, to organize search parties.
These students had come down to Thunder Bay in order to finish high school. They found urban life disorienting and strange. Having been raised in traditional communities on reserve lands, often hundreds of miles from a road, they were transplanted to the city and assigned to boarding families, who were sometimes relatives, in households which did not contain country food or immediate family; they struggled to adapt, in a city which is known for its racism and crime.
When one of these students goes missing, it is the Indigenous community which goes into action. In these cases, the bodies were usually discovered by groups of volunteers, often when officials were not taking any action, having pronounced that there was no evidence of foul play.
The government has obligations to act, but theory and practice do not align. Resources are allocated in other directions (which is just what has historically happened with education, health care and other social services as well, when it comes to sharing resources with Indigenous people). The government has seized the lands (and their resources) but hasn’t met the treaty obligations.
For instance, First Nations students are consistently underfunded by the Government of Canada – receiving about $2000 to $3000 less than non-Indigenous kids – and statistics show that three out of every four Indigenous students drop out of high school. That’s why the Indigenous-run school in Thunder Bay remains the better option for northern Indigenous teens who want to complete their education.
World-wide, leaders took note of Canada’s brilliantly effective genocidal policies (which the South African government was grateful to deploy in apartheid). But deaths like these are not news. The deaths of these young people have gone unnoticed beyond the community.
These losses are not even viewed as symptoms of larger concerns. They are simply overlooked or dismissed.
“‘Nobody called,’ says Tina. ‘Not the police, not the coroner. The only person who called or came [aside from David Fiddler] was the chief of Keewaywin First Nation. That is it. And when the chief came, all he told me was, ‘She choked on her own vomit,’ That is it. He didn’t say anything else. I didn’t believe him, that this was all that happened.”
Historically, many Canadians would prefer to believe there is no evidence of foul play, not only in these seven cases, but in a broader sense as well. Historically.
But of course there is. It’s just more convenient if you’re on the “winning side” (the exploitative side) not to see it.
“To the families of the Seven Fallen Feathers – my one hope is to bring honour to the lasting memories of your children, and that their lives are never dismissed or forgotten. I tried to tell their stories, and without your participation in the book I could never have done so. Chi-miigwetch for sharing the stories of the Seven Fallen Feathers”
To Tanya Talaga, thank you for telling this story. May it find more listeners. May those listeners take action.