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 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.