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Oct. 19, 2021 | Tuesday
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Author speaks of Indigenous discrimination and her hopes for change
Tanya Talaga signing her book, Seven Fallen Feathers, on Feb. 13 at the Hare Wine Company. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

After centuries of shameful atrocities committed against Canada’s Indigenous population, award-winning investigative journalist Tanya Talaga is counting on the next generation of native Canadians to continue the push to preserve Indigenous language and culture.

“I am very much hopeful,” Talaga told a sold-out audience at the Hare Wine Company on Feb. 13.

Retaining Indigenous languages is “so important” and native youth are taking it upon themselves to keep them alive, Talaga said. “We often say how resilient our communities are. Our youth are getting smarter.” She said change is coming, “You can see the weave throughout (the native community).”

Talaga, an Indigenous issues columnist and longtime investigative reporter for the Toronto Star, was speaking as part of Wine and Words hosted by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.

She spoke with fierce conviction about her bestselling book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.

The book focuses on systemic failures of the institutions that should be protecting and encouraging the native community. It’s a narrative on the lives of the seven native students who died between 2000 to 2011 in Thunder Bay, 50 years after 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack froze to death after running from a residential school. An inquest was called after Wenjack’s death, but none of the resulting recommendations were implemented.

With only standing room left available, the event was the busiest co-ordinators have seen.

The audience, predominantly non-native, was keenly interested in what Talaga had to say.

The book is steeped in Canadian culture, or more accurately, a deep-rooted, shameful piece of Canadian history. It’s about the atrocities in the native education system and how the deaths of seven children went otherwise unnoticed and ignored by most of Canadian mainstream media.

A member of the audience asked about the importance of family and community, adding that parallels can be drawn locally between the strength of community, and when the community is weakened, the whole system can be broken.

While Talaga said she agrees family is important, she is telling a different story altogether.

“It has never been an even playing field for Indigenous people,” she said, adding that the inequality is vast.

Experiences covered in the book and throughout her talks are matters that hit home with Talaga. While she didn’t attend residential schools herself, she is of Polish and Indigenous descent, and is surrounded by family and friends who can tell the story of racism and inequality. Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor.

In her presentation, Talaga talked of how her path was altered to tell the story that needed to be told.

When she began her journey, the goal was to write an article about the lack of native votes in the federal election. She met with Stan Beardy, the Nishawbe-Aski Nation’s grand chief. Looking for answers as to why Indigenous people never seemed to vote, she said she rambled about native voting patterns, commenting on the fact that Indigenous people could act as a swing vote in many ridings.

While she continued to ask questions along that vein, she said Beardy retorted with concerns about the disappearance of 15-year-old Jordan Wabasse.

In an excerpt from Seven Fallen Feathers, she said:

“I launch into my spiel, trying not to sound like a salesperson or an interloper into his world, someone who kind of belongs here and kind of does not. This is the curse of my mixed blood. I am the daughter of a half-Anish mom and a Polish father.”

After 15 minutes of the same line of questioning, she said she told herself to smarten up and listen to what the grand chief was trying to tell her.

From that point, she began to investigate the deaths of the seven fallen feathers, a term coined by Christian Morrisseau, father of one of the students and cover artist of her book.

Her newest book, All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, explores youth suicide rates in Indigenous communities across not only Canada but also reaching areas of the United States, Norway, Brazil and Australia.

Debbie Krause, community engagement co-ordinator for the library, said the talk by Talaga set a different tone than other speakers the library has hosted. Often, Krause said the authors brought in are fiction writers.

“I think it was wonderful. She was a very poignant speaker. She told a story that needed to be told and she had the audience’s attention the whole time, which is phenomenal because she spoke for quite a while.”

She said the venue was perfect as well, adding that (The Hare Wine Company) did a great job hosting the event.

Those in attendance were offered refreshments and a glass of wine after the question and answer period. Many were local teachers, both current and retired.

Liz Bonisteel, of Miskito descent, which is one of the First People groups Indigenous to Nicaragua, is a teacher librarian at Harriet Tubman Public School in St. Catharines. She said she came to the event with colleagues.

Talaga spoke of common experiences across the globe, Bonisteel said, adding that All Our Relations was meaningful to her because it delves into a global Indigenous perspective.

“It’s a common experience. (Talaga) tries to answer the question; how do I support the next generation?”

Among other teachers in the audience, Maria Rocca Martin, retired teacher for 36 years with the Niagara Catholic District School Board, said the book spoke to her.

“I read her book and I was riveted. It was thoughtfully written with a kind of sad desperation. It makes you wonder, when will things change?”

Rocca Martin said she taught at Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories for a portion of her career, where 90 per cent of the students were native.

She asked Talaga at the end of her speech what she would say to native children to keep them strong and looking ahead during tough times they face.

Talaga responded that the kids are “very much at the forefront,” adding that, “You draw on your strength. It’s going to take a long time for all of these institutions to change.”