“As long as there is action, there is hope”.
On Sunday the Fold Festival started with breakfast, singing and important discussion about Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers which investigated the stories and the suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of seven indigenous youth who had moved to Thunder Bay to go to high school.
Tanya Talaga spent many years as a journalist with the Toronto Star before investigating this story. Seven Fallen Feathers educates Canadians to consider the dreadful past of residential schools, the destruction of culture and terrible treatment of indigenous people while highlighting the strength and sense of community that supports these families. Tanya lives in Toronto and is a single mother to two teenaged children.
The audience could imagine the Northern part of Ontario, a geographic area the size of France which supported a collection of 49 communities. Many of these commutes are remote. To travel, one must fly in and fly out. There are no malls, no highways, no traffic lights. There are no choices for students who want to continue their education but to leave their community for a highschool education. These students end up travelling 400-500 km to board with another family just for the privilege of attending school which is something that many Canadians take for granted.
In 2011, Tanya was sent to Thunder Bay on assignment to understand why indigenous people in the North were not voting. As she started her research and spoke to a chief, he asked why she was not writing about Jordan Wabash? He was a teen who had been missing for 70 days. She admitted that she kept asking about the election but soon realized that she needed to listen to the chief’s story. What she heard led to her research and sharing a story that needed to be told, a story about 7 youth that had died and a story that had not received any national news coverage.
Tanya learned about Jethro, the first boy to go missing. He had moved South and was lucky to move in with an aunt who loved him. When she realized he was missing, the police did not take action telling her that he was “probably out partying like all the other native kids”. The community mobilized and searched independently for Jordon over 6 days before the police reacted.
The audience also heard about Curran Strang. He was an 18 year old from a community with a high suicide rate. The school in his community had burned down and there was no clean water. He moved to Thunder Bay bringing that baggage with him.
“So many threads from the past that echo into the live of the 7 and echo into the future”.
The festival participants appreciated a brief history lesson describing how thousands of children were taken away from “savage” parents (as quoted by John A. MacDonald) to be assimilated in residential schools. Six thousand children never came home and those that survived lived with a trail of intergenerational trauma. While many in the audience were likely aware of the story of Charlie Wenjack, I learned that he was only one of nine students who had run away that day. His death was part of an inquest in 1967 asking why there were not schools in the indigenous communities which is a question that can still be asked today.
This non-fiction book has stayed with me. How can we have students with no access to high school in their communities? Why does federal funding for indigenous schools not match the provincial funding for public schools? What can we do to make a difference?
Tanya suggests that we need to “start to embrace the true history of the community, everyone needs to learn a little more”. She suggested reviewing the truth and reconciliation book as “understanding will foster change”. Reflecting on the importance of learning, I love that books can be a starting point for learning more about the true history. All Canadians should read Seven Fallen Feathers, in fact, a portion of her profits support the indigenous high school in Thunder Bay. Looking for more reading? It might not be easy but pick up a memoir like Up Ghost River by Edmund Metatawabin which shares his terrible experiences in residential school. This is a book that I had to put down at times, as the narrative was so difficult to read. Looking for fiction? Try Medicine Walk or Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese. Not keen on reading? Indian Horse is currently at the theatres.
“There is hope now, we are talking about issues that did not get talked about”.
I am thankful to have read Seven Fallen Feathers and to have had my copy signed. Tanya Talaga has told the story of 7 remarkable youth, 7 families and the injustice and racism taking place in Thunder Bay (not to mention the province and the entire country). This is a book that I will continue to recommend!