About this book
All Our Relations
Finding the Path Forward
Tanya TalagaSample Chapter ↓ CBC Massey Lectures
In this vital and incisive work, bestselling and award-winning author Tanya Talaga explores the alarming rise of youth suicide in Indigenous communities in Canada and beyond. From Northern Ontario to Nunavut, Norway, Brazil, Australia, and the United States, the Indigenous experience in colonized nations is startlingly similar and deeply disturbing. It is an experience marked by the violent separation of Peoples from the land, the separation of families, and the separation of individuals from traditional ways of life — all of which has culminated in a spiritual separation that has had an enduring impact on generations of Indigenous children. As a result of this colonial legacy, too many communities today lack access to the basic determinants of health — income, employment, education, a safe environment, health services — leading to a mental health and youth suicide crisis on a global scale. But, Talaga reminds us, First Peoples also share a history of resistance, resilience, and civil rights activism, from the Occupation of Alcatraz led by the Indians of All Tribes, to the Northern Ontario Stirland Lake Quiet Riot, to the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which united Indigenous Nations from across Turtle Island in solidarity.
Based on her Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy series, All Our Relations is a powerful call for action, justice, and a better, more equitable world for all Indigenous Peoples.
In the spring of 2017, I was driving down May Street in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with Ricki Strang. We had just gone on an emotional walk along the McIntyre River, which weaves around a strip mall, past a parking lot, and underneath an overpass. We were remembering his younger brother Reggie, whose body was found in the water there on November 1, 2007. Reggie was one of seven First Nations students who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. Ricki was only sixteen when he woke up in the river on October 26, 2007, the last night he saw his fifteen-year-old brother alive. Ricki mentioned that he had to leave the next day so he could attend a memorial service for Amy Owen, a girl back home in Poplar Hill First Nation, a remote fly-in reserve more than six hundred kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay. He quietly told me that she was really young and that she had died by suicide.
On the evening of January 8, 2017, Amy Owen ran out of her Ottawa-area group home and headed straight for the train tracks across the street. This was where the thirteen-year-old planned to die. The head of the Beacon Home remembers that in the evenings, Amy would talk about how she needed to do it. She wrote it on the walls, on pieces of paper. “I need out of here” was one message. “I want to die” was another. The night that Amy ran, staff at the seven-bed facility for teenage girls were ready and right behind her. Amy would not be successful that day.
One of Amy’s closest friends would be: that same night, more than one thousand kilometres away, in the remote Northern Ontario fly-in First Nations community of Wapekeka, twelve-year-old Jolynn Winter took her own life.
Two days later, on January 10, also in Wapekeka, Sandra Fox stepped out briefly to get pain relievers for the persistent discomfort in her leg. When she came home, she found that her daughter, Chantell Fox, also twelve years old and Jolynn’s best friend, had hanged herself.
Amy would follow suit, but not for another three months.
Seven girls in all, whose lives had intersected back home or in group homes or care facilities far away from their First Nations communities, took their lives within a year of one another.
Alayna Moose, twelve. Kanina Sue Turtle, fifteen. Jolynn Winter, twelve. Chantell Fox, twelve. Amy Owen, thirteen. Jenera Roundsky, twelve. Jeannie Grace Brown, thirteen.
Far beyond the dense, brightly lit skyscrapers and condominiums in the cities that ring the Great Lakes of southern Ontario, the people of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political organization comprising forty-nine First Nations spread out over the northern two-thirds of the province, have been trying to stop their children from dying.
The seven girls were from Poplar Hill First Nation and Wapekeka First Nation, both communities with populations of less than five hundred people. The anguish over the loss of the girls blankets NAN territory, covering the land east from the Manitoba border to James Bay, and then north to the shallow shores of Hudson Bay. The deaths of Jolynn and Chantell ?—? granddaughter of Wapekeka’s chief, Brennan Sainnawap?—?hit the community so hard that nearly all the teenagers living there were put on suicide watch. Counsellors and mental health experts from the cities were flown in, and distraught children were sent on medical flights to be assessed by psychiatrists and doctors in southern hospitals, far away from home. The sadness overwhelmed the tiny, tight-knit community.
Some people have called the deaths of the seven girls a “suicide pact,” implying that the action was designed and formulated as a grand plan. Anna Betty Achneepineskum, former deputy grand chief of NAN, bristles at that term. She sees things differently. It was not a pact; that word covers up the root of the problem ?—? what the girls were experiencing was tremendous grief, and as a result they were struggling to cope.
“Kids don’t talk about suicide or talk about a pact for no reason,” says Anna Betty. “They are talking to each other about their trauma. And in a small community, you just can’t isolate yourself from trauma.”
It did not have to be this way. In the early summer of 2017, six months before his granddaughter’s death, Chief Sainnawap sent a note to Health Canada, the federal bureaucracy in charge of health funding for all the Indigenous people in the country, begging for assistance. The community leaders had discovered that some of their youth had made a suicide pact. The leaders were seeking $376,706 to immediately hire a mental health team of four workers who could deliver prevention and intervention programs and help create a healthy community environment. The request was denied. When the girls’ deaths made national and international news, the community later heard through the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that Wapekeka’s request had come at an “awkward time” during the budgetary cycle ?—? there simply wasn’t any funding available.
This was not the first time that a cry for help from the community was ignored. In 2015, after twenty-two years, Ottawa abruptly cut the funding for the annual Survivors of Suicide Conference in Wapekeka, where there had been sixteen deaths by suicide from 1982 to 1999. Wapekeka and the surrounding First Nations had grown to rely on the annual meeting as a time to come together in an Indigenous space, honour those they had lost, and together seek a new path forward. The conference meant much to the people who had lived the experience of loss and who couldn’t afford a charter plane to a big-city, Western-focused medical conference on the issue.
On January 18, 2017, days after NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler had flown to Wapekeka to attend the funerals of Chantell and Jolynn, he got on another plane in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and flew to the nation’s capital. There he held a news conference at the National Press Gallery with Joshua Frogg, Wapekeka’s band manager and Chantell’s uncle; Sioux Lookout’s Dr. Michael Kirlew; National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde; Charlie Angus, a New Democratic Party member of Parliament; and Jonathan Solomon, the grand chief of the Mushkegowuk Council of Cree Nations along the western side of James Bay. The council’s eight communities had suffered unbearably high numbers of youth suicides and attempts ?—? six hundred attempts alone since 2009, so many that it prompted them to hold their own two-year-long “People’s Inquiry into Our Suicide Pandemic.” Nearly three hundred people from the community had participated, seventy-seven personal stories were recorded, and recommendations were made in a report released in January 2016.8 By the time of the news conference, exactly one year later, the council still had not received a response from the federal government.
In February 2016, a few weeks after the release of the Mushkegowuk report, Fiddler and NAN had declared a “state of emergency” ?—? NAN territory was experiencing a health and suicide crisis. Children were dying from preventable illnesses and by their own hands because of a lack of access to proper nursing and medical care. In May 2014, five-year-old Brody Meekis, from Sandy Lake First Nation, died of strep throat ?—? an illness that can be cured with antibiotics if properly diagnosed.9 Brody had been at the Sandy Lake nursing station with his two brothers; all were feeling unwell, but the boys were sent home without having had throat swab tests. Instead, they were told to use Vicks VapoRub and come back if the symptoms persisted. Because they didn’t have a car and couldn’t access the sole medical transport van at Sandy Lake, they were unable to return to the nursing station for further treatment. When Brody’s father tried to get another appointment, he was told a time wasn’t available for at least a week. Brody continued to get worse. Days later, his mother took him back to the nursing station, but it was too late. He passed away. Brody was the second child in NAN territory to die of strep throat, a common, treatable infection. For NAN, Brody’s death highlighted a host of issues with the poorly supported health clinics on reserves: a lack of doctors and adequate staffing, issues with nurses’ qualifications, a shortage of supplies, and the infrastructure of the clinics themselves being below standards.
NAN had outlined a series of directives that had to be executed within ninety days in order to manage the state of emergency. At the time, these were ignored.
So, too, were the mental health recommendations drawn from the inquest following the deaths of the Seven Fallen Feathers: NAN high school students Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse. Between 2000 and 2011, all seven lost their lives while attending high school in Thunder Bay. Because their communities did not have basic functioning high schools, the children had to move six hundred kilometres away from their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers, their homes and their communities, in order to pursue their education. Made on June 28, 2016, the inquest’s recommendations ?—? specifically numbers thirty-seven and thirty-eight ?—? addressed the suicide crisis. Recommendation number thirty-seven called on the federal and provincial governments to work with NAN to devise a mental health plan for youth, and recommendation number thirty-eight called for the Province of Ontario to “improve consistency and enhance co-ordination” of on-reserve mental health services. At the time, those two recommendations were also ignored.
Alvin Fiddler had had enough. The father of two teenage girls and the son of Moses Fiddler ?—? a witness to the signing of the 1929 adhesion to Treaty No. 9, which saw much of what is now Northwestern Ontario swallowed by the Crown ?—? Alvin was frustrated and tired of working within the government’s parameters and antiquated legislation. For years he had been playing by the government’s rules, following the proper protocol channels. NAN was constantly financing studies, writing reports, and applying for funding to the federal government so that its communities could receive basic services such as clean, drinkable water, proper sewage treatment, working fire trucks, and police services. Progress was always woefully slow, if any was made at all. Too often, it was only when First Nations deaths were reported in the news that the government took action.
The day before Fiddler started the press conference on January 19, 2017, NAN released a searing letter he had written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had promised in December 2015 to “reset” Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people, establishing a “renewed, nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations peoples, one that understands that the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations in Canada are not an inconvenience but rather a sacred obligation.”
Fiddler’s letter described how fundamentally broken the relationship was between NAN communities and the Government of Canada. It outlined a devastating list of all the unacted-upon court orders, the ignored inquest findings, and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s consistent failure to respond in times of crisis ?—? all during Trudeau’s brief tenure in office.
“As you have acknowledged in the House of Commons,” Fiddler wrote, “these tragedies are a result of our colonial history, and we need to fix a relationship that has broken over the past decade, and indeed over centuries between Canada and Indigenous peoples. We are Treaty partners. But, this partnership changed over time, increasingly defined by choice on one side, and legislative constraints on the other.
“First Nations are not sitting on their hands and expecting the federal government to solve the tragedies of their communities. But, we have been legislated into a position where our power is to make proposals and seek program dollars from your bureaucracy. When we are then ignored, our hands are tied and our children continue to needlessly die.”
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 First Nation Communities Read: Young Adult/Adult. The book was also a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Nonfiction Prize and the BC National Award for Nonfiction, and it was CBC’s Nonfiction Book of the Year, a Globe and Mail Top 100 Book, and a national bestseller. For more than twenty years she has been a journalist at the Toronto Star, and has been nominated five times for the Michener Award in public service journalism. She was also named the 2017–2018 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy. 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
Winner, RBC Taylor Prize
Finalist, Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing
Finalist, Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction
Finalist, BC National Award for Canadian Nonfiction
Finalist, Speaker’s Book Award
Longlist, CBC Canada Reads
A Globe and Mail Top 100 Book
A National Post 99 Best Book of the Year
A Chatelaine 20 Best Books of 2017
CBC’s Nonfiction 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
“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 Nonfiction 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
“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
“Where 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
“An 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.” — 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
“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
“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
“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