The tragic story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack is a rightfully well known one now in Canada - how the young boy froze to death after running away from a residential school. What is less known is that of the four recommendations drafted to avoid such a horrific event being repeated, not a single one was implemented.
Decades later, from 2000 to 2011, seven Indigenous students died in the small city of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Forced to leave their homes and families, the seven students died far from their loved ones. Their stories were untold until journalist Tanya Talaga wrote and published Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (House of Anansi Press). Nominated for both the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, Talaga's unflinching and empathetic narrative examines both the horrific deaths of the seven students, and the wider reality of Canada's human rights violations of the country's Indigenous communities.
A portion of each sale of Seven Fallen Feathers will go to the Dennis Franklin Cromarty Memorial Fund, set up in 1994 to financially assist Nishnawbe Aski Nation students’ studies in Thunder Bay and at post-secondary institutions.
We are proud to welcome Tanya to Open Book today to discuss the powerful story of the title of Seven Fallen Feathers. She tells us about the painting that inspired the title, why this title is her favourite of anything she's worked on, and what is coming up next for her.
Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.
Seven Fallen Feathers is the title of Christian Morrisseau’s grand painting depicting the seven First Nations high school students who lost their lives while they were living hundreds of kilometres away from their homes, living in Thunder Bay. Christian’s son Kyle was one of the seven students. Christian was tired of hearing everyone – the media, lawyers, the public – refer to the kids as the “seven dead students.” Each of the seven were loved by their families and by their communities. When each were lost, the grief was immense. Each life was worth remembering and referring to them instead as Seven Fallen Feathers reminds people of that.
What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?
This title was given to me by Christian Morrisseau, who came up with it after it was suggested to him by a friend. Beyond the title, Christian’s beautiful painting, graces the cover of this book. The painting shows each of the Seven Fallen Feathers, his son Kyle, is on the far right of the book. Christian is the son of Norval Morrisseau, one of the world’s most celebrated Indigenous painters. Not only is Christian a painter, so was Kyle. To have this painting, combined with the title, grace the cover of my book is a tremendous honour.
What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)
Hands down, it is Seven Fallen Feathers because it was a gift from the father of one of the Seven Fallen Feathers.
What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?
Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace by David Adams Richards. I read this book while studying in university. I was haunted by it’s depth and humanity and I became an instant fan of Richards. It is the second book of a trilogy of the people who live near the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. The other titles (and the books) in the trilogy are also brilliant. They are, Nights Below Station Street and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down.
Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?
Before I saw Christian’s painting, I had called the book, “Seven.” It was “Seven,” in my mind for a long time, for a host of reasons including the meaning of the seven Anisihinaabe teachings and the seven fires prophecies. But once I saw Christian’s work and after speaking with several people about the painting – we all agreed it had to be, “Seven Fallen Feathers.” I was overjoyed when Christian agreed. The writing of the book was the result of many hands and the cover and title of the book illustrates that perfectly.
What are you working on now?
I’m the 2017-2018 Atkinson Fellow in public policy so I’m on a bit of a daily news break from my regular job as a journalist at the Toronto Star. I have to produce eight stories on a chosen topic and that is where I’m focused at the moment. That, and plotting out book number two …
Tanya Talaga has been a journalist at the Toronto Star for twenty years, covering everything from general city news to education, national health care, foreign news, and Indigenous affairs. She has been nominated five times for the Michener Award in public service journalism. In 2013, she was part of a team that won a National Newspaper Award for a year-long project on the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh. In 2015, she was part of a team that won a National Newspaper Award for Gone, a series of stories on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. She is the 2017–2018 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy. Talaga is of Polish and Indigenous descent. Her great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor. Her great-grandfather, Russell Bowen, was an Ojibwe trapper and labourer. Her grandmother is a member of Fort William First Nation. Her mother was raised in Raith and Graham, Ontario. Talaga lives in Toronto with her two teenage children.