Between 2000 and 2011, seven Indigenous students were found dead in Thunder Bay, Ont. Their names were Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, Kyle Morrisseau and Jordan Wabasse. They had come from communities hundreds of kilometres away to be able to go to high school, and each of their deaths was ruled accidental or undetermined. Thanks to the efforts of their families and Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a coroner’s inquest into their deaths was held in 2015–16. It resulted in 145 recommendations, but failed to produce any concrete answers for the families as to what actually happened to their children.
In Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, which has been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize Nonfiction, Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga retraces each young person’s steps in the days and hours before they died, and at the same time provides portraits of who they were, what they loved, and who loved them. She also shines a light on Thunder Bay, where just this past spring, two more young people were found dead in the river.
Talaga spoke with Chatelaine about what it was like getting to know these families, the fact that what’s been happening in Thunder Bay is also happening throughout Canada, and why, at the same time, she’s hopeful that things are finally changing.
In 2011, when you went to meet with Stan Beardy, then grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, for a story about the 2011 federal election, he kept changing the subject of your interview, asking, “Why aren’t you writing a story about Jordan Wabasse?”
It was remarkable. It was like my ears opened to what he was saying. I had gone up to Thunder Bay to do a news feature on the election and I came away with something totally different.
Later on, when I was standing in the command centre for the search for Jordan, I was overwhelmed by where this was all happening — in Thunder Bay, right underneath Mount McKay, [where] my grandmother’s reserve is, Fort William First Nation. And also by the fact that four [of the students] were found in the waters surrounding Thunder Bay [Jordan would also eventually be found in the water, in the Kaministiquia River]. I thought that people needed to think about what’s happening there. While it’s a story about Thunder Bay, it’s a story about Canada. It speaks to the residential school issue, to inequities in funding for Indigenous kids, to racism and history. Not the history you or I learned at school.
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Your mother grew up in Raith, a very small Indigenous settlement about an hour west of Thunder Bay.
Raith is really so tiny, one of those places that, unless you’re looking for it, you miss it on the highway. Labourers and trappers lived there when my mother was growing up.
Did you go back there when you were doing your reporting for this book?
I did. My family’s not there anymore, but I drove through a couple of times and took my mum there. There’s a sign [on the road] that says, “This highway is maintained by Sarah Amirault.” That’s my aunt; she died about 15 years ago.
You grew up in Toronto, but frequently visited Thunder Bay. What did you know about what life was like for Indigenous people there?
You always heard stories about how it wasn’t safe. There were always two different sides to Thunder Bay. Everybody knew there was one hospital where the white people went and another where Indigenous people went. Little things like that; that’s just the way it was.
You write about a guidebook that used to be given to students when they first came from small, faraway communities to go to school in Thunder Bay. Many had never seen a streetlight before, and alongside the guidelines for traffic safety, there was also this: “Look confident, walk with your head up as if you know where you are going. The appearance of being lost or being anxious may render you vulnerable to unwanted attention.”
I’ve been going to Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School [where many Indigenous students attend] since 2011, talking to the students, and they’ll tell you that they’ve had garbage thrown at them when they’re walking to or from school. They get called names, told to go back home. It’s pretty horrible when you hear a 14-year-old tell you, “Oh yeah, that happens, it’s happened to me, it’s happened to all my friends.” It’s so heartbreaking to me that this is the state of things in this century.
In another striking passage, you write about the errors in the missing person report on Curran Strang [who died at age 18, in 2005, in what the coroner ruled was an accidental drowning], including the fact that it was filed a full day after he went missing.
There’s quite a bit of that, you know — you see it time and time again. Jethro Anderson — he was the first boy, in 2000. When Dora, his aunt, called the police, she was told, “Well, he’s just out partying like all the other Native kids.” And it’s like, no, you don’t understand, he never does this. And this is not unique to the parents and caregivers of these kids, I hear the same story when I report on murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. And, again, it’s not just a Thunder Bay story, it’s a Canadian story. I would argue that communication [with police is an] issue across the board — when cases are reported, how seriously they’re taken, what steps are done to look more for missing people, these things that repeat over and over again.
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You talked to so many people who were bereft, who were angry, who had huge losses.
I’m so proud of the resiliency of these families. They’ve been through so, so much, and they really want to make sure that this doesn’t happen to any other children.
I think that the hardest interview was possibly with Ricki Strang [younger brother of Reggie Bushie, who died at age 15 in 2007 in what was ruled an accidental drowning]. I met Ricki in Thunder Bay — he doesn’t often come into the city — and we hung out together for a couple of days. We went to the McIntyre River and talked about everything that happened the night Reggie died — where they were in the bush, he showed me where they were drinking, we talked about who he was with. I was amazed at how close the area was to a Shopper’s Drug Mart and a big parking lot — I mean, you’re five feet away from the water’s edge. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I went to the car to get my camera — when I came back, Ricki was putting tobacco down on the water, and kneeling, and his hands were out, embracing his brother.
What was that like for you?
It’s hard, because you’re there, and it’s such an emotional moment, such an intimate moment. One of the last times Ricki was there, his brother was with him — he woke up in the water [he has no idea how he wound up there that night] and he couldn’t find Reggie. To be standing there with him — it was overwhelming, it really was. I’m honoured to be part of that, to be a witness to what he’s going through.
Five of the students were found dead in the water, and three of those five deaths — of Jethro, Kyle, and Jordan — were found to be undetermined by the coroner’s inquest. You write that that the “heavy cloak of racism, of a sinister motivation behind why the kids ended up in the water, seeped into the inquest proceedings and those questions remain to this day.”
It’s still true, isn’t it? The families still, for the most part, have no answers. I hope that the recommendations from the inquest — and there are many of them — are addressed; the jury really did a remarkable job.
In Thunder Bay, everyone is talking about this. It’s being debated in the newspapers, in coffee houses… But this is a question for all of Canada, not just Thunder Bay. I think — I hope — that things are changing now, with the MMIW inquiry, the spotlight on police. I think people are becoming more aware of what has been in front of them in Canada for 150 years but [what they’ve] oftentimes chosen to ignore.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.