Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers

Those who pay attention to the “republic of letters” in Canada will have noticed that Tanya Talaga’s book, Seven Fallen Feathers, has been cleaning up the awards for literary non-fiction, having won the RBC Taylor Prize, and now the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing (announced yesterday at the Politics and the Pen gala in Ottawa). Since I was a member of the jury that awarded it the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize, I thought I might say a few words about why the book stands out among all others published this past year.

With the release of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, there has been an enormous amount of discussion of the need for reconciliation (or even just normalization of the relationship) between Canada and its First Nations. A great deal of this discussion has been rather fruitless, in part because it has been confined almost entirely to the plane of symbolic politics. (Compare, for instance, the amount of time and energy spent discussing land acknowledgments and the citizenship ceremony, to the amount of time spent discussing economic development strategies for remote Indigenous communities.) The other major problem is that the discussion has been oriented almost entirely toward the past, and toward past injustices, with precious little discussion of how we move forward.

For instance, for all the talk about residential schools, how many Canadians have any idea what they have been replaced with? We all agree that residential schools were a terrible, terrible thing, and we’re glad that they have been closed down. But if we don’t have residential schools anymore, what do we have? It’s not as though we’ve gone and built high schools in hundreds of remote communities, many of which contain no more than a dozen potential students. Indigenous children in remote northern communities still have to travel, and live away from home, in order to attend high school. And if they are not living at the school, because we have closed down all the residences, where are they living? More importantly, who is taking care of them, and how is it working out?

This question is one that gets answered in the first chapter of Talaga’s book, but before getting into that, I just want to dwell upon the question a bit longer. Many people look back at the residential school era and conclude that people at the time must have been monsters, in order to have inflicted such cruelty and injustice upon native children. Of course, with some exceptions, people at the time thought that they were doing the right thing, it just turns out that they weren’t. So how are we any different now? How can we be confident that our descendants will not look back on us and conclude that we are monsters? I suppose it all depends on how things turn out. But how can we have any confidence that things are going to turn out better now, when we don’t even know what our current policies are?

The fact that questions like this are not being posed every day suggests that, for all the talk about reconciliation, most people have not really thought much about the problems faced by Indigenous peoples in Canada (other than the blanket condemnations of “racism,” which as we shall see, more often functions as an excuse for not thinking – as though, if we got rid of racism, all the other problems would just miraculously disappear.) That is why I, and I assume many other readers, were shocked by the first chapter of Talaga’s book, where she describes the living arrangements that were made in Thunder Bay for high school students coming in from remote communities.

The focus of the book, I should mention, is Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) High School in Thunder Bay, a school for Indigenous students run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC). It has around 150 students, most from reserves several hundred kilometers away. Over a period of 11 years, seven of their students died, five of them in the nearby river. Unlike some schools, DFC had no residence for its students – partly, of course, because of the negative historical associations raised by residential schools. DFC and NNEC are run by Indigenous people, so it’s nowhere near the same thing. And yet the aversion to residences remains strong. So what did they do with the students?

The standard arrangement for DFC students who had no relatives in Thunder Bay to live with is that they were assigned to “boarding parents,” an arrangement that sat somewhat uncomfortably between renting an apartment and being billeted with a family. Basically, people who had some room in their house, and were willing to take in a student, were paid $500 a month to feed and house a DFC student. They were, however, not really “parents,” and had no legal authority over the students, only the ability make house rules, and report to school authorities in cases where these were being violated (97). So children as young as 14 were being sent off to live in these rooming-house like arrangements. (As Talaga notes, “The ‘parents’ were under no obligation to supervise the kids at night, eat meals with them, help them with their homework, or take them to any after-school activities.”(27))

If the description of this arrangement gives you a slight feeling of apprehension, then you’re probably on the right track. It is difficult to imagine white middle-class kids from Toronto prospering under such conditions. The DFC kids suffered from both culture shock being in the “big city” (Talaga has a particularly poignant observation about how the northern students, as soon as they get off the plane, immediately line up at the Tim Hortons, which is a special treat), along with a wall of racism and hostility from the white population. On top of that, many come from very difficult and unstable family circumstances, including high rates of sexual violence, as well as a background culture of substance abuse. As a result – one is tempted to say, predictably – some of them go completely off the rails.

How far off the rails? This is where things get a bit delicate, and where Talaga handles things about as well as anyone could be expected to. The subtitle of the book is “Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.” A lot of the public commentary has focused on the “racism” angle, and Talaga herself has played it up. Nevertheless, racism does not actually play that much of a causal role in the story that unfolds. In fact, to the extent that the book has a flaw, it is that Talaga could stand accused of “burying the lede.” Because what she has actually written is a book about substance abuse, and in particular, alcohol abuse, that is being presented as a book about racism (more on why that is later). The former might be the “hard truths” that she is referring to, although it’s difficult to say, because she reports, but passes over without comment, the fact that alcohol was involved in all seven of the deaths.

Talaga’s first reference to alcohol is merely eyebrow-raising. She begins by discussing the case of Jordan Wabasse, a 15-year old student, portrayed as an ordinary, hockey-loving teenager, who dreamed of one day playing for the Maple Leafs. A note of apprehension is struck early on in her discussion of the day that he died:

It was cold that morning. Northern, freeze-your-ears-off cold, the temperature fluctuating between minus seventeen degrees Celsius during the day and minus thirty-two at night. Like most teenage boys, Jordan wasn’t dressed for the weather. He wore white Adidas running shoes, a Maple Leaf baseball cap, a purple Hurley hoodie under a lined, dark-blue denim jacket, a white T-shirt that said Blink if You Want Me, and black plastic wind pants.(28)

Jordan had hockey practice at 8:45pm, and usually came home to eat before practice. On this day, however, he met up with some friends “and they decided to do a bit of drinking.” Talaga notes, somewhat laconically, that,

Besides hanging out at the mall, indiscriminate drinking was a common way to pass the time for some of the teens from the north, who suddenly found themselves unsupervised and in the playland of the city. Drinking was the great social equalizer for lonely kids lacking self-confidence or friends who just wanted to fit in with the crowd (30-31).

Reading this gave me pause. Hockey is a pretty demanding sport, so it’s a bit weird to go drinking before practice. It also raises questions about how serious the whole “kid who dreamed of playing for the NHL” line was. But Talaga merely makes note of it and moves on. Oh well, I thought, the whole thing about Indians and drinking if just a stereotype anyhow, so it must not be that big of a deal. And in Jordan’s case, it’s not clear how much of a deal it was. He never made it to hockey practice, and later that night, he wound up drowning in the river, under unknown circumstances. Talaga, like many others, clearly suspects foul play, but there is no hard evidence one way or another.

The alcohol angle, however, does not go away. Indeed, the stories that Talaga tells quickly move from being eyebrow-raising to positively harrowing. To say that these kids are engaged in “high risk behaviour” is an unhelpful euphemism. Their drinking habits are positively terrifying. I cannot adequately describe how extreme things get (read the book!) but let me pick a few quotations out from the story of Robyn Harper, a girl who literally drank herself to death (autopsy showed a blood alcohol level of .339). New to the city and the school, she goes out one snowy night with a group of six other teenagers, to drink in the park:

It’s an ideal spot for the kids to go and drink unnoticed. Someone at the front yells back to the others to use their feet to swish the snow. Or better yet, snap some tree branches off and use them as brooms to obscure their tracks. No one wants to get busted. Not by the school counsellors, who drive around the city on weekends looking for wayward kids. They know to follow tracks to find kids in the bushes. No one wants to get caught drinking…(178)

Pause for moment to let that detail about the counsellors sink in. Talaga reports that “the school along with NNEC, set up a system of night watchers, employees who were on call twenty-four hours a day. At night, the watchers would head out in vans, slowly driving the streets, looking for their wayward kids”(143).) So a high school with only 150 students has employees who drive around the city, evening and night, including weekends, to pick up “wayward” students (which, we discover later, includes not only students who are drinking, but also those who are passed out in the street from drinking).

The kids went to a “runner” named Peter – someone in the community, who in return for a share, will buy liquor for minors. None of these kids ever has any trouble getting alcohol, because there is always a willing runner:

Peter got them the bomb: a 60-ounce bottle of Smirnoff vodka, three big cans of Smirnoff Ice coolers, and a half-dozen 40-ouncers of Olde English beer. Their teenage brains might not have known how much alcohol they had in their possession; all they knew was that it was enough to get trashed.

They wade through the deep snow in the park and start drinking. It gets late, and curfew approaches:

Everybody started chugging what was left of the alcohol. They couldn’t let it go to waste. Robyn tried to stand up straight, but wobbled and swayed. Others in the group started to bury the evidence in the snow. Robyn fished through her bag for a pipe… When she found the pipe, she took it out and filled it with two grams of weed. The kids passed it around. Robyn tried again to stand up straight but she kept falling over. She couldn’t really walk and she was slurring her words (184).

At this point, the other kids take off, leaving Robyn alone with her friend Skye, who somehow has to get her out of the park.

She weaved and staggered under Robyn’s weight, pulling her through the snow. But Robyn was heavy and listless, so tall and powerfully built, a big, solid girl at close to 250 pounds. Skye tried to hoist her friend on her back, but she couldn’t do it. So she picked up her friend’s feet and began dragging her up the path. Robyn’s puffy coat moved easily on top of the newly fallen snow, but still Skye pulled and sighed, dragging Robyn up to the road. She stopped for a moment, caught her breath, and then tried lifting Robyn upright. Just as Skye got Robyn to her feet, her friend puked all over the road… As Skye was pulling Robyn along the sidewalk, she saw headlights, a car slowing down. She waved for help but the car didn’t stop. Instead, it slowed down and pulled up beside the girls and someone threw leftover McDonald’s food and wrappers at them. Someone from the car yelled, “Go back home… Indians”(185).

Skye eventually gets Robyn onto a bus, and hands her over to some other friends. She then heads off, and winds up drinking some more in a back alley with a bunch of other people, before finally getting arrested. Robyn makes it home, only to pass out in the hallway. Her cousin (with whom she lives) finds her there at 2am, lying on the floor. “He nudged her foot with his foot. When he saw her foot move, he left her on the floor and went to work.” A few hours later she is dead.

There is a lot that could be said about this terrible story, but I just want to make one observation. The little detail about the car slowing and people throwing the McDonald’s wrappers at the girls is a pretty good example of the way that the “racism” angle plays out throughout the book. Talaga puts a lot of emphasis on it, and yet in many of these cases, it doesn’t seem to be the most important part of the story. (Apart from the possibility that some of the deaths were in fact racially motivated murders, an hypothesis that is often suggested, but which Talaga does not turn up any evidence for.) For instance, if one were to make a list of Robyn’s problems, racism would no doubt figure on the list, but it would hardly be the number one item. Total lack of parental supervision and friends who are, if not intent on killing her, then at least criminally negligent in looking out for her well-being, would rank somewhat higher, in my estimation.

And yet, if one looks at the editorializing that Talaga does in the book – which aspects of the stories she comments on – it is all focused on racism. She reports on the alcohol abuse in either a neutral or an apologetic fashion. She mentions, as well, a fair bit of drug use among students – marijuana, ecstasy, Percocet – but passes over it without comment. Why? There is one point at which she tips her hand. While discussing social conditions on the Pikangikum reserve, she says that “One hundred years of social exclusion, racism, and colonialism has manifested as addiction, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and lack of knowledge on how to parent a child”(138). I believe that Talaga is saying here explicitly something that a lot of people believe implicitly, which is that all the substance abuse is not an independent problem, but rather just a consequence, or as Talaga puts it, a “manifestation,” of racial oppression. Thus talking about alcohol abuse is really just an indirect way of talking about racism, since the latter causes the former. (Elsewhere, she says “Many of the students found themselves alone, dealing with whatever trauma they brought with them when they arrived. They could head out into the city and let off steam or medicate their grief without anyone really watching”(142).) In this respect, Talaga is adhering to what I think of as the “standard left-wing Canadian metanarrative,” according to which anything bad that Indigenous people do to themselves or others must be a consequence of colonialism/racism/residential schools. Despite the fact that this is a causal claim, it is considered morally impermissible to question it, or even to ask for evidence, because doing so raises the suspicion of “blaming the victim.” It’s also an extremely optimistic view, because it suggests that all these problems could easily be fixed, if only white people would behave better.

I am prepared to overlook the deficiencies of this analysis in Talaga’s book because, frankly, the issues that she discusses are extremely difficult, and the fact that she is able to raise them without getting everyone upset with her is a worthwhile enough achievement. I must admit, however, that at times I began to wonder whether Talaga believes her own story as wholeheartedly as she initially appears to. While reading the book, it often seemed to me that the self-destructive behaviour exhibited by several of the students reflected some sort of a death wish (or at least, this was the phrase that came to mind). This of course raises the question, whether some of them did, in fact, have a death wish. To put it more explicitly, it raises the question whether some of the drownings were suicides. Officially, Talaga sticks to the theory that they were pushed into the river. And yet there is one rather peculiar chapter (4), dedicated almost entirely to the topic of suicide among Indigenous youth. In it, she notes that Pelican Falls High School, which caters to roughly the same population as DFC, has had seven students commit suicide since 2000 (“eerily, the same number of students to have died in Thunder Bay from 2000 to 2011”(132)). From there, she moves on to a discussion of Curran Strang, a DFC student with serious substance abuse problems, who was failing academically, and was considered a suicide risk by school authorities. He was found drowned, after last being seeing drinking by the river. And yet Talaga is at pains to emphasize that “there is absolutely no evidence” that he ended up in the river of his own accord. Like with the others, she strongly intimates that he was murdered. And yet the very next page, she is back to talking about suicide again. It is difficult to read this without being tempted by a “Straussian” interpretation, that she is actually trying to say something that she doesn’t want to just come out and say.

For the most part, however, Talaga sticks to the party line, which is that “the heavy cloak of racism” represents “the sinister motivation behind why the kids ended up in the water” (281). She is, however, a good reporter, and thus does not allow the broader interpretive gloss to distort the facts, or to suppress the story that she wants to tell. It is more like an overlay, one that leaves the reader free to draw his or her own conclusions. (If you listen to my fellow juror, Taiaiake Alfred, talk about the book, you could be forgiven for thinking that we had read two entirely different books.) My reading of the book naturally puts the most emphasis on the aspects of the story that had the greatest surprise value for me. I was expecting to hear a lot of about the racism of the Thunder Bay police force. I was not expecting to read a book in which the consequences of people “chugging” 60-ounce bottles of hard liquor arises on more than one occasion.

Here is the conclusion that I drew. The problems with Indigenous education are much worse than I thought they were, and no one seems to have much of a clue how to fix them, not on the Indigenous side, not in downtown Toronto, and not in Ottawa. (I do not share the rather touching faith exhibited by many in the power of the white man’s “talking cure” – that what we really need, in order to fix these social problems, is more mental health counsellors flown in from the city.) As for DFC, Talaga concludes the book by noting that they are now in the process of constructing a residence at the school, so that students will no longer have to be placed in private homes (313). Whether she observes the irony of this is unclear; in any case, she passes over it in silence.


P.S. For those who’ve noticed that my blogging has been pretty light this part year, now you know why — since May I’ve been spending pretty much all my spare time reading books for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize jury.

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