Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, Tanya Talaga, House of Anansi, pp. 376, ISBN: 978-1487002268
The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, published in 2019, deemed that the violence experienced by the First Nations, Metis and Inuit women and girls amounted to an act of genocide. Empowered by the Indian Act, the Sixties Scoop, residential schools, and breaches of human and indigenous rights entrenched in the structural and systemic systems of settler colonialism led and continue to lead to higher rates of deaths, violence, suicide, and substance abuse in Indigenous populations. As well, a study conducted by Statistics Canada found that First Nations people have a shorter life expectancy than settlers and are more likely to die of avoidable causes. Indeed, the mortality rate of the Indigenous population per 100,000, measured from 2006 to 2016, was 581 for those living on-reserve and 419 living off-reserve, compared to 335 for the non-Indigenous population. The leading causes of death are, according to the study, “assault, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes, suicide, and unintentional injuries.”
The last cause of death, the “unintentional injuries,” should have come with a caveat for it relies on the classification of deaths by the police and coroners, without looking into the quality of the inquest and investigation. A report issued by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director that looked into the relationship between the Indigenous People and the Thunder Bay Police Service found systemic racism in the city’s police force and recommended that numerous deaths be re-investigated. The report focused solely on one police force, but as recent events in Winnipeg regarding the refusal of the provincial Premier to order a search of a landfill site where the remains of many Indigenous women have been found shows, it is likely a country-wide issue.
Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers examines the deaths of seven Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay from 2000 to 2011. Although the narrative focuses on the specific cases of these seven youths and community relations in Thunder Bay, Talaga traces their deaths back to the impact colonialism had on moulding their lives and the lives of their ancestors with Thunder Bay itself being largely emblematic of other settler communities in Canada. Indigenous communities were torn through outright war, but also through legal mechanisms such as the Indian Act, which is a regulatory regime through which the Canadian government subjugates Indigenous identities and governance to the needs of the settler communities. Enacted in 1876, the Act, among other things, introduced reserves and band councils, prohibited First Nations from making claims against the government in court, denied voting rights, declared cultural ceremonies, such as potlach, illegal, and introduced residential schools, which made attendance compulsory for children between 7 and 16. Despite many amendments being introduced the consequences of the Act continue the oppression of Indigenous peoples.
Seven Fallen Feathers is ultimately an account of how Indigenous people have been failed and wronged by the Ontario educational system and the state. Talaga was told that to begin her research into the seven deaths, she ought to start with the 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack who escaped from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School and died while trying to walk 600 kilometers back to his community, but it could have been any one of the children who tried to escape sexual, emotional and physical abuse they experienced in residential schools. They escaped overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and an environment that failed to provide adequate food, clothing and healthcare. Although children are no longer forcibly removed from their homes and subjected to forced assimilation, many youths who live on reserves are still required to travel to towns and cities hundreds of kilometres away from their homes to continue their schooling. All seven of the youths who died in Thunder Bay came from such communities. All of them were attending a private First Nations school, Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, established in 2000 by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council to preserve their language and identity. However, Indigenous schools are federally funded, and their funding has been capped at 2% in the 1990s, which means they’re chronically underfunded and overlooked, as Talaga shows in one of the encounters between an Ottawa bureaucrat and an Indigenous activist. Indigenous schools get 70 cents for every dollar spent on non-Indigenous schools. According to Statistics Canada 2016 study, about two-thirds, or 63%, of Indigenous youth completed high school, compared to 91% of non-Indigenous youth. Those living on reserves had completion rates of 46%.
Abandoning their parents and being hosted by foster parents in a city that’s starkly different from their homes on the reserves, the youth develop dependencies on substances and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Being Indigenous, they experience racial and physical abuse on the streets, regardless of their age. As Talaga describes, they get called names by locals passing by in their cars, they get things thrown at them. Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushee, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse moved to a place of hatred that did not welcome and care for them, all to pursue their education, which in reality represents the modern reincarnation of the residential school system. Although not forced to leave anymore, Indigenous youth are presented with a choice of leaving or not pursuing their education and continuing the vicious cycle of poverty and exclusion.
Their deaths were ascribed to alcohol intoxication, or were undetermined, despite there being inconsistencies with the profile of the students and the manner of their deaths. The police were quick to determine the causes of death and did not investigate further. As the OIPRD study concluded, Thunder Bay Police Service “failed to take even the most basic investigative steps in a number of sudden death cases” and “ignored evidence potentially pointing to a non-accidental cause or contribution to death.” Indeed, when in danger, Indigenous people were loath to call the police but relied either on school resources or determined that it was better to suffer through abuse than to be confronted by the police. Moreover, it was the Indigenous search parties who provided breakthroughs in determining the location of the bodies, not the police. Although the youth gathered in the same places along the rivers in Thunder Bay, and although their deaths were spread across 11 years, the City made no improvements to the safety in the area. The seven lived in a city that in 2015 had almost one-third of all anti-Indigenous hate crime reported in Canada.
Seven Fallen Feathers powerfully details the violations of Indigenous and human rights and the continual and intergenerational effects colonial policies have on Indigenous communities and the urgent need to address them. It shows that Indigenous activism has made strides towards accomplishing that goal, but that solidarity and support from the wider community are necessary to change the structures built into the system of oppression.