THUNDER BAY – In her book Seven Fallen Feathers, Tanya Talaga, a reporter/writer with roots in Northwestern Ontario has synthesised the crisis of youth from Northern Ontario First Nations communities who come to the city of Thunder Bay and return home in coffins.
Seven Fallen Feathers is an emotional read. It lays bare many of the gaps in the educational system, in the way young teenagers coming to Thunder Bay face what can only be called systemic racism, and how for many of the youth refuge is found in drugs, alcohol, and sadly for some in death.
The actual number of deaths is far greater than seven young people. Talaga doesn’t include the almost twenty young people from Mishkeegogaming who have died in recent years in our city.
If you are looking for a lot of good news about Thunder Bay in Seven Fallen Feathers, you likely won’t like this book. Talaga lays bare many of the issues which have the Thunder Bay Police Service and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board facing investigations.
On a personal level, over the summer I have had some experiences that demonstrate just how far our city seems to justify racism. Out at Boulevard Lake a few weeks ago a young child was making a sandcastle. When he finished, he topped off his creation with the Confederate flag. That symbol of racism and hate is seen far too frequently in our city, from bumper stickers to licence plate covers, to flags.
Over at Junot Park this summer, with my very engaging five-year-old grandson, he and two other young boys were playing. Two of the children were Indigenous, the other was Caucasian. Watching those three children play was honestly inspiring. I started to walk over to the mother of the one boy. My intention was to say to her, that while Thunder Bay might have some issues with racism, watching these boys play together was proof the future will be alright. Before I could get there, that mother looked up from her smartphone, saw her boy playing with the other two boys and roared out, grabbed him by the hand and dragged him away.
Thunder Bay has a long way to go. It is going to take more than what we are doing to make a real difference.
Tanya expresses in her book how in a meeting with then Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Stan Beardy, how her questions on many what she thought were broad and important issues were led to a “standoff”.
Grand Chief Beardy told her, “Jordan has been missing for seventy-one days now”.
“Stan’s message finally sank in. Seven students. Seven is a highly symbolic number in Indigenous culture. Every Anishinawbe person knows the prophecy of the seven fires. Each prophecy was referred to as a fire. Each fire represents a key time in the history of the people on Turltle Island.”
For many Indigenous people, Seven Fallen Feathers is likely going to be a hard read. It will bring back memories of some of the systemic racism and hate that they have faced in Thunder Bay and other communities in the north.
For many non-Indigenous people the book might prove a hard read too. However it is really a needed read.
So why should you get a copy of this book?
Simple. The reality is that the situation facing First Nations students and residents in terms of racism and hate is showing the dark underside of Thunder Bay. That is a situation that needs serious action. Gaining a better understanding of the issues facing hundreds of youth in our city might generate the needed impetus
Recent commentary from municipal leaders has been very negative toward the national media who have been coming into our city to report on the issues – in many cases – very negative issues that are making the national news.
Reading Seven Fallen Feathers, if you open your mind, you will see that there are serious issues that must be resolved. There are human rights issues, treaty rights issues, and very bluntly put also economic issues all massing on our city.
Thunder Bay operates with a motto of “Superior by Nature”
Perhaps in that slogan lies the real issue facing our city. Certainly, the intended meaning, of being beside Lake Superior and surrounded by nature has great intentions.
Sadly, until we start really working to understand the issues facing our Indigenous population, it is very possible that the day will come when the Indigenous groups may well pull up stakes in our city and move out.
That might make some people in Thunder Bay happy, but the economic impact would be massive. Our city and the people of Thunder Bay would be the biggest losers.
However, with the city now holding the mantle of being Canada’s hate crime capital, the meaning can also easily be taken to have other and far more sinister meanings.
Seven Fallen Feathers offers a look at how much less than superior many of our actions in Thunder Bay really have been. It is a must read. One can hope in Seven Fallen Feathers people in our community might find a path forward to true understanding and reconcilliation.
Can we do better in Thunder Bay and Northwestern Ontario?
The truth is simple, we must.