6

Seven Fallen Feathers

I’ve struggled with how to write about Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga.

Not only is the subject matter difficult, but what more could I say that Talaga hasn’t already said better?

But shying away from talking about this book, about what happened, is part of the problem. So here we go.

seven fallen feathers

Seven Fallen Feathers tells the stories of Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle and Jordan. Forty years after recommendations were made to keep Indigenous children safe when they were sent away from home for school, these seven Indigenous youth were left to their own devices and lost their lives. None of the recommendations had ever been put in place. None of their deaths were ever properly investigated.

The choice that Indigenous youth in remote communities face is a difficult one: stay at home and receive nothing more than a Grade 8 education, or leave home and move to a city and attend a secondary school in a strange place without your relatives to keep you safe.

Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle and Jordan all moved to Thunder Bay, Ontario to attend secondary school. None of them had ever been to a “big” city and things that we take for granted, strip malls and fast food, were all completely new to them. They moved into boarding houses, sometimes with cousins or distant relatives. They made new friends, and experimented with alcohol – like all kids at their age do.

Five of them were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, despite their families claiming they were good swimmers and would never be in the water in the middle of the winter, one died in the hall of her boarding house, and one inexplicably collapsed in his kitchen. Seven years after Jethro, the first boy, was found, an inquest was finally held after the death of Reggie.

Seven Fallen Feathers takes a hard look at Canada’s relationship with Indigenous communities. Talaga, a journalist, digs deeply into the families and histories of these forgotten children. A lot of them have family histories with residential schools, a legacy whose pain and suffering is a burden still being carried by new generations.

This book is brutal in that it looks at the completely unnecessary deaths of promising young people. They left the security of their communities for a place that was totally unknown to them, a place that was not welcoming, teeming with racist overtures.

But this book is also completely necessary. It opened my eyes to something that I didn’t want to see. I think Seven Fallen Feathers is a book that all Canadians should read. It’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wrongs Canada has committed against Indigenous Peoples but it’s a very important start.

7

A different Canada

In Canada, we like to think that we are totally accepting and open with everyone. All colours, creeds and religions are welcome in Canada.

Right?

Not quite.

I recently read B. Denham Jolly’s memoir, In The Black: My Life and came to see a side of Canada that I’d rather was comfortably in the past.

jolly

Jolly was born in Jamaica in 1935 – in 1955, he came to Canada for the first time for school. He writes about a Canada where people smile at him but throw his resume in the garbage, where he wasn’t allowed to socialize in certain places, where even when he had paid back a student loan in full, he wasn’t eligible for another one, where schools hadn’t officially desegregated until 1954 and bad feelings lingered.

Once he finished school, he had to return to Jamaica – when he had first come to Canada, he had to sign a form saying that after he finished school, he would go home, that he wouldn’t try and stay in Canada. Jolly enjoyed his time in Canada, had built a life for himself in Toronto and wanted to stay. The reason why there were so few black people in Canada is because there were unofficial policies in place limiting the number of black people allowed to immigrate. Despite his education and his standing within the community, Jolly was shown the door.

Eventually he made it back to Canada and he was ready to start his life. He was a teacher in a small community where he met his wife – together they had three children. Jolly also set up a nursing home business, eventually owning a number of properties. And he was incredibly active within the black community, working with other activists to ensure that black Canadians were heard, that their contributions were valued and most of all, that they were given the same opportunities as white Canadians.

In The Black was an eye opening read for me. It challenged me to think of Canada in a different way. We like to think that we are better than other countries, notably our neighbours to the south, when it comes to race relations. Jolly’s experiences (and he opens the book with a run in with police that happened when he was in his 70s) illustrate that we haven’t come as far as we like to think we have.

Although Jolly sees that we have come a long way, he posits that there is still more work to be done. That even as an old man, who has lived in Canada for more than 50 years, who is very much Canadian, he is still seen as a Jamaican immigrant. As he writes about the work that has already been done, he urges young Canadians to keep working towards a better future, to recognize that the work isn’t finished.

I think this book will challenge a lot of Canadians. But it’s an important book, a reminder of where we were, where we are and where we could be. In The Black includes the history of one man, of a community demanding more, of a country trying to be better.

We can still be better.