Book Review

Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga

powerful stuff on racism, colonialism and botched governmental attempts to move on

Although I have only completed three or four actual social interactions since I moved to Canada over two years ago (whoops lol), Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers has been recommended to me multiple times.

A long term journalist at the Toronto Star, Talaga is of both indigenous and settler (the term used by most progressives in contemporary Canada to mean “white European”) heritage, so is understandably well-placed to have written this book-length study about the lives of Indigenous youth in the city of Thunder Bay, the “hate crime capital of Canada“.

The feathers of the title are Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau, and Jordan Wabasse.

They were all young First Nations people, and the “fall” referred to was their deaths.

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Between 2000 and 2011, in a little over ten years, seven students living in Thunder Bay, Ontario, far away from their families and homes (there are very few high schools in the countryside of northern Canada; the legacy of residential schools (which I have read about before) continues in a modified form), died in unexplained circumstances.

Five were found in the deep, cold, waters close to the city (it sits on the northern coast of Lake Superior and has rivers flowing through it to the lake), while two others came home highly intoxicated, collapsed, and never woke up.

Addiction and self destructive behaviours are frequent responses to abuse and trauma, including intergenerational trauma.

The last residential school only closed in the nineties and the Canadian government only acknowledged its culpability in acts of cultural genocide in the last decade and a half, surprisingly – for me – during the Conservative government that preceded Justin Trudeau’s primeministership.

Honestly, this discovery astounded me, as an English person. Our own Conservative party continues to lie and deny the realities of structural racism and when our Labour party, the supposedly left wing party, had a leadership which engaged with post-colonialism and other complex, important, topics, the party self-destructed and has replaced its progressive leadership with a charmless, beige, climate change denying (in act rather than word) KNIGHTED fucking LAWYER who is directly complicit in the racialised imbalance within the policing and justice system.

Sorry. That’s an aside.

Look, I will probably get distracted again.

I know that I’m not going to describe Talaga’s excellent book in any way that’s going to make it sound better to anyone who hasn’t read it than I already have.

In Seven Fallen Feathers, Talaga writes about these young people whose lives were cut short, she writes about the institutions that failed them and how those institutions had been failed in turn by the financial and practical resources afforded them by the Canadian federal government.

As with all serious explorations into inequity, into prejudice, into racism and abuse and addiction and death, as is inevitable, there is no happy ending, but there is also no sole guilty party, there is instead a barrage of information exposing the realities of the system and the near impossibility of any immediate change.

An inquest was held in 2016 into the deaths of these seven children – you can call them adolescents, teenagers, students, but what it comes down to is that they were children – and it lasted eight months. A lot of the book is structured around the revelations and discussions that came from this inquest (though not exclusively; Talaga clearly spoke to a lot of people from across Northern Ontario and down here in its South, too), but even then, during the year or so it took to turn the text into a book manuscript, two more indigenous youths were found dead in the waters of Thunder Bay. And there was the woman who died after someone threw a weighty metal tool at her from a speeding car, and there were more assaults and more suicides and more deaths, disproportionately affecting the First Nations people of Canada.

It’s bleak, difficult, reading.

Politicians from across the political spectrum and throughout Canada’s history are quoted and exposed for the ways in which they deliberately caused violence and discrimination against Turtle Island’s indigenous peoples.

I’m not in the best space psychologically at the moment (when am I lol? (the answer is 2006, a few times 2013-14, 2018 (a good year) and five weeks in the Summer of 2016), so maybe reading an emotive, detailed exploration of discrimination, hate, trauma, unsolved murder, neglect, corruption and violence was a bad idea, but as someone who is always reading something, I think the texts I choose are more likely to reflect, to complement, my mood/s than to imperil them.

I’ve been crying for no apparent reason a lot, the last few days.

My dreams are getting more difficult again, I have lost all sense of hope;

Books like Seven Fallen Feathers and the reality they depict are essential because there is no freedom, no authenticity, to be found in denying the world we live in.

There is a truth to the phrase “ignorance is bliss”, and not because stupid people are happy, but because the only way to wake up smiling is to deny an acknowledgement of the capitalistic, anti-democratic, cruel, exploitative and exhausting world we live in.

The children who moved to Thunder Bay to attend high school may have done so with their own consent and the consent of their parents; the schools themselves may have accountability to the “state” rather than to the “church”; a situation that is better than the residential schools system doesn’t mean that the existing situation is good.

There is still cultural alienation, removal of children from their families and cultures;

there is still endemic, structural oppression forever at play in the settler communities of North America. And of Australia and of New Zealand and of central and south America, too. And elsewhere. (This was written prior to the escalation of violence in the Middle East that happened in mid-May 2021.)

The world is a mess.

There is no time for ignorance.

Children are dying, children are dead;

mass extinction is happening around us and we’re only a few decades from the mass flooding by ice-melt powered seawater of some of the most densely-populated parts of the world.

There isn’t time for ignorance. There isn’t time for bliss.

I highly recommend this book. It is published, as so many wonderful books are, by House of Anansi.

Also, before I go, if you do read this book, read the Acknowledgements, they are genuinely moving.

ORDER DIRECT FROM THE PUBLISHER HERE

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