About this book
Seven Fallen Feathers
Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City
The shocking true story covered by the Guardian and the New York Times of the seven young Indigenous students who were found dead in a northern Ontario city.
In 1966, twelve-year-old Chanie Wenjack froze to death on the railway tracks after running away from residential school. An inquest was called and four recommendations were made to prevent another tragedy. None of those recommendations were applied.
More than a quarter of a century later, from 2000 to 2011, seven Indigenous high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. The seven were hundreds of miles away from their families, forced to leave home and live in a foreign and unwelcoming city. Five were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, below a sacred Indigenous site. Jordan Wabasse, a gentle boy and star hockey player, disappeared into the minus twenty degrees Celsius night. The body of celebrated artist Norval Morrisseau’s grandson, Kyle, was pulled from a river, as was Curran Strang’s. Robyn Harper died in her boarding-house hallway and Paul Panacheese inexplicably collapsed on his kitchen floor. Reggie Bushie’s death finally prompted an inquest, seven years after the discovery of Jethro Anderson, the first boy whose body was found in the water.
Using a sweeping narrative focusing on the lives of the students, award-winning investigative journalist Tanya Talaga delves into the history of this small northern city that has come to manifest Canada’s long struggle with human rights violations against Indigenous communities.
A portion of each sale of Seven Fallen Feathers will go to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty Memorial Fund, set up in 1994 to financially assist Nishnawbe Aski Nation students’ studies in Thunder Bay and at post-secondary institutions. Further donations can be made to: http://www.cromartyfund.ca.
It’s early April and the 2011 federal election is in full swing. All over Canada, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are duking it out with Jack Layton’s New Democrats and the struggling Liberals in a bid to win a majority government.
I’m in Thunder Bay, Ontario, to see Stan Beardy, the Nishawbe-Aski Nation’s grand chief, to interview him for a story on why it is indigenous people never seem to vote.
The receptionist at the NAN’s office greets me and ushers me into a large, common meeting room to wait for Stan. Everything in the room is grey — the walls, the tubular plastic tables, the carpets. The only splash of colour is a large white flag with a bear on it that has been tacked to the wall.
The Great White Bear stands in the centre of a red circle, in the middle of the flag. The white bear is the traditional symbol of the life of the North American Indian. The red circle background is symbolic of the Red Man. His feet are standing, planted firmly on the bottom line, representing the Earth while his head touches the top line, symbolic to his relationship to the Great Spirit in the sky. The bear is stretched out, arms and feet open wide, to show he has nothing to hide.
There are circles joining the bear’s rib cage. They are the souls of the people, indigenous songs, and legends. The circles are the ties that bind all the clans together.
These circles also offer protection. Without them, the ribcage would expose the great bear’s beating heart and leave it open to harm.
Stan walks in and greets me warmly, his brown eyes twinkling as he takes a seat.
Stan is pensive, quiet, and patient. He says nothing as he wearily leans back in his chair and waits for me to explain why exactly I flew 2,400 km north from Toronto to see him and talk about the federal election.
I launch into my spiel, trying not to sound like a salesperson or an interloper into his world, someone who kind of belongs here and kind of does not. This is the curse of my mixed blood. I am the daughter of a half-Anish mom and a Polish father.
I ramble off abysmal voting pattern statistics across Canada, while pointing out that in many ridings indigenous people could act as a swing vote, influencing that riding and hence the trajectory of the election.
Stan stares at me impassively. Non-plussed.
So I start firing off some questions.
It doesn’t go well. Every time I try to engage him, asking him about why indigenous people won’t get in the game and vote, he begins talking about the disappearance of fifteen-year-old Jordan Wabasse.
It was a frustrating exchange, like we were speaking two different languages.
“Indigenous voters could influence fifty seats across the country if they got out and voted but they don’t. Why?” I ask.
“Why aren’t you writing a story on Jordan Wabasse? He has been gone seventy-one days now,” replies Stan.
“Stephen Harper has been no friend to indigenous people yet if everyone voted, they could swing the course of this election,” I continue, hoping he’ll bite at the sound of Harper’s name. The man is no friend of the Indians.
“They found a shoe down by the water. Police think it might have been his,” replies Stan.
This went on for a good fifteen minutes. I was annoyed. I knew a missing Grade 9 indigenous student in Thunder Bay would not make news in urban Toronto at Canada’s largest daily newspaper. I could practically see that election bus rolling away without me.
Then I remembered my manners and where I was.
I was sitting with the elected grand chief of 23,000 people and he was clearly trying to tell me something.
I tried a new tactic. I’d ask about Jordan and then I’d swing around and get him to talk about elections.
Then Stan said: “Jordan is the seventh student to go missing or die while at school.”
Stan says their names: “Reggie Bushie. Jethro Anderson. Paul Panacheese. Curran Strang. Robyn Harper. Kyle Morrisseau. And now, Jordan Wabasse.”
He then tells me the seven were hundreds of miles away from their home communities and families.
Each was forced to leave their reserve simply because there was no high school for them to attend.
“Going to high school is the right of every Canadian child,” says Stan, adding that these children are no different.
About the Author
TANYA TALAGA is the acclaimed author of Seven Fallen Feathers, which was the winner of the RBC Taylor Prize, the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, and the First Nation Communities READ: Young Adult/Adult Award; a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize and the BC National Award for Nonfiction; CBC’s Nonfiction Book of the Year, a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, and a national bestseller. Talaga was the 2017–2018 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy, the 2018 CBC Massey Lecturer, and author of the national bestseller All Our Relations: Finding The Path Forward. For more than twenty years she has been a journalist at the Toronto Star and is now a columnist at the newspaper. She has been nominated five times for the Michener Award in public service journalism. Talaga is of Polish and Indigenous descent. Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor. Her great-grandfather, Russell Bowen, was an Ojibwe trapper and labourer. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation. Her mother was raised in Raith and Graham, Ontario. She lives in Toronto with her two teenage children.
Awards and Praise
Praise for Tanya Talaga and Seven Fallen Feathers:
Winner, 2018 RBC Taylor Prize
Winner, 2017 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
Winner, First Nation Communities Read Indigenous Literature Award
Finalist, 2017 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Finalist, 2017 Speaker’s Book Award
Finalist, 2018 B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
A Best Book of the Decade, The Walrus
An Indigo Best Book of the Decade
A Globe And Mail Top 100 Book
A National Post 99 Best Book of the Year
“Talaga has written Canada’s J’Accuse, an open letter to the rest of us about the many ways we contribute — through act or inaction — to suicides and damaged existences in Canada’s Indigenous communities. Tanya Talaga’s account of teen lives and deaths in and near Thunder Bay is detailed, balanced and heart-rending. Talaga describes gaps in the system large enough for beloved children and adults to fall through, endemic indifference, casual racism and a persistent lack of resources. It is impossible to read this book and come away unchanged.” — RBC Taylor Prize Jury Citation“Tanya Talaga’s powerful book is a hard-hitting story of the realities of Canadian racism, complicity, and Indigenous suffering. It is also a testament to the resilience of the Anishinaabe families who endure the crushing impacts of historic and contemporary injustices. In spare prose and a direct voice, Talaga documents the tragedies of the lost lives of Indigenous youth while creating a compelling narrative that educates the reader on the sad history of Indigenous–White relations. This book is a crucial document of our times, and vital to the emergence of a true vision of justice in Canada.” — Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing Jury Citation
“In Seven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga delves into the lives of seven Indigenous students who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay over the first eleven years of this century. With a narrative voice encompassing lyrical creation myth, razor-sharp reporting, and a searing critique of Canada’s ongoing colonial legacy, Talaga binds these tragedies — and the ambivalent response from police and government — into a compelling tapestry. This vivid, wrenching book shatters the air of abstraction that so often permeates news of the injustices Indigenous communities face every day. It is impossible to read Seven Fallen Feathers and not care about the lives lost, the families thrust into purgatory, while the rest of society looks away.” — Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction Jury Citation
“Seven Fallen Feathers is achingly blunt in confronting recurring damage that must be repaired. The book puts a human face to the headline statistics, reveals the continuing harm of unequal educational opportunity, and delivers the evidence of systemic racism in Canada with an insistent voice. Tanya Talaga draws the reader into communities of hurt and flawed responses surrounding the deaths of seven Indigenous students, the ‘fallen feathers.’ Talaga yanks at the reader’s complacency with her story of separated families, untethered youths, and the seemingly unbridgeable distance between cultures. She offers painful lessons while courting hope.” — BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction Jury Citation
“You simply must read this book. Tanya Talaga has done the hard work for us. She sat with the families, heard their stories. Now, with the keen eye and meticulous research of an uncompromising journalist, she is sharing their truths. We have to start listening. Parents are sending their children to school in Thunder Bay to watch them die. Racism, police indifference, bureaucratic ineptitude, lateral violence — it doesn’t have to be this way. Let this book enrage you — and then demand that Canada act now.” — Duncan McCue, host of Cross Country Checkup on CBC Radio
“This story is hard and harrowing, but Talaga tells it with the care of a storyteller and the factual attention of a journalist. She makes the difficult connections between this national tragedy and the greater colonial systems that have endangered our most vulnerable for over a century, and she does it all with a keen, compassionate eye for all involved, especially the families who are too often overlooked. These stories need to be heard. These young people deserve nothing less than to be honoured everywhere.” — Katherena Vermette, bestselling author of The Break
“Seven Fallen Feathers may prove to be the most important book published in Canada in 2017. Tanya Talaga offers well-researched, difficult truths that expose the systemic racism, poverty, and powerlessness that contribute to the ongoing issues facing Indigenous youth, their families, and their communities. It is a call to action that deeply honours the lives of the seven young people; our entire nation should feel their loss profoundly.” — Patti LaBoucane-Benson, author of The Outside Circle
“Once started, this book is difficult to put down. At just over 300 pages, Seven Fallen Feathers moves from one compelling story to the next, and seamlessly weaves in facts and history. The writing is crisp and thoughtful. Seven Fallen Feathers . . . fosters understanding, and is a book that can benefit everyone.” — Ottawa Review of Books
“[W]here Seven Fallen Feathers truly shines is in Talaga’s intimate retellings of what families experience when a loved one goes missing, from filing a missing-persons report with police, to the long and brutal investigation process, to the final visit in the coroner’s office. It’s a heartbreaking portrait of an indifferent and often callous system . . . Seven Fallen Feathers is a must-read for all Canadians. It shows us where we came from, where we’re at, and what we need to do to make the country a better place for us all.” — The Walrus
“Devastating, angry, and thought-provoking” — Open Letters Monthly (blog review)
“What is happening in Thunder Bay is particularly destructive, but Talaga makes clear how Thunder Bay is symptomatic, not the problem itself. Recently shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, Talaga’s is a book to be justly infuriated by.” — Globe and Mail
“[A]n urgent and unshakable portrait of the horrors faced by Indigenous teens going to school in Thunder Bay, Ontario, far from their homes and families. . . . Talaga’s incisive research and breathtaking storytelling could bring this community one step closer to the healing it deserves.” — Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
“Talaga’s research is meticulous and her journalistic style is crisp and uncompromising. . . . The book is heartbreaking and infuriating, both an important testament to the need for change and a call to action.” — Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW
“A poignant, emotional glimpse into the lives of the seven fallen feathers — Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Kyle Morriseau, Paul Panacheese, Reggie Bushie, Robyn Harper, and Jordan Wabasse — through the eyes of their friends and families.” — TBNewswatch
“Seven Fallen Feathers . . . is a must read. One can hope in Seven Fallen Feathers people in our community might find a path forward to true understanding and reconciliation.” — NetNewsLedger
“This is a book that everyone should read. . . . [it] will grip you, make you think and help you understand better what has led up to the horrific experiences of young people cut down too soon. It connects the local experience to the larger experience of Canada and is a cry for justice, human rights and respect.” — The Chronicle Journal
Talaga’s work brings stories to the fore when mainstream media have covered them up for decades . . . Seven Fallen Feathers is a difficult read. It deals with death and racism; it tackles pain and suffering head on. Telling the students’ stories is also an act of hope and healing based on the certainty that things can be better, and that they must. This book is a solid piece of investigative journalism and should be read, and shared far and wide.” — Citizens’ Press
“Tanya Talaga investigates the deaths of seven Indigenous teens in Thunder Bay — Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Paul Panacheese, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse — searching for answers and offering a deserved censure to the authorities who haven’t investigated, or considered the contributing factors, nearly enough.” — National Post
- Short-listed Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, 2017
- Short-listed B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-fiction, 2018
- Short-listed Speaker's Book Award, 2017