By AMANDA POPE
Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga went to Thunder Bay, Ont. to write about why Indigenous people don’t vote in federal elections, but came back committed to investigating the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students and the education system that failed them.
Talaga, a two-time recipient of the Project of the Year National Newspaper Award, detailed the stories of the seven students in her new book “Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.” She recently discussed the book, which has been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, at a Ryerson Journalism Research Centre event attended by about 100 journalism students.
“When you’re reporting, be conscious to think beyond the stories you’re seeing and the stories that don’t get told,” said Talaga, who has worked for The Star for more than 20 years. “Those are the stories that are often going to lead you down an interesting path.”
Talaga said the book idea emerged from a completely different story assignment. The 2011 federal election was underway and she had travelled to Thunder Bay to talk to Stan Beardy, the grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, about why Indigenous people in northwestern Ontario don’t vote.
“He looked at me and said, ‘why aren’t you doing a story about Jordan Wabasse?’” Talaga said. “I thought maybe he wasn’t hearing me right so I asked the question again and he looked at me and he said, ‘Jordan has been missing for 70 days.’”
Beardy told her that Wabasse was one of seven youths who had come to Thunder Bay for high school to go missing or die since 2000. Talaga, whose grandmother was raised in a small community about an hour from the city, said she was shocked.
“I was stunned,” Talaga said. “I couldn’t believe that if there were seven students that had died or had gone missing, how come this wasn’t national news across Canada? How come I wasn’t reading about this in all of the newspapers and seeing it on every single TV station in the evening news? There was hardly anything out there.”
The young people whose deaths Talaga chronicles in her book had come to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty First Nations High School in Thunder Bay because they don’t have access to secondary school in their remote First Nations communities.
The seven students, all of whom died between 2000 and 2011, are Jethro Anderson, 15, Curran Strang, 18, Paul Panacheese, 17, Robyn Harper, 18, Reggie Bushie, 15, Kyle Morriseau, 17, and Jordan Wabasse, 15.
Talaga said it was apparent that Beardy felt Canada had failed to keep Indigenous youth safe and unharmed: “This is a story about Thunder Bay but this is [also] a story about Canada,” she said. “This story can be seen all across the country when you’re dealing with Indigenous people and their rights and what’s been happening for so long, for too long.
“There is a whole part of history of this country, Indigenous history, that has been lost or not told and it’s only now that it’s being told.”
During a question-and-answer session, one fourth-year journalism student asked Talaga for advice on reporting difficult stories about Indigenous communities.
“Keep reporting in these areas, keep asking the hard questions,” she said. “You shouldn’t be shy. It doesn’t matter if you’re Indigenous or not, just be respectful when you’re approaching a community and I think that you’ll be surprised by what you find.”
A portion the book’s sales will go to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty Memorial Fund. This fund was set up in 1994 to financially assist Nishnawbe Aski Nation students who are studying in Thunder Bay and at post-secondary institutions.