I Hope Our Eyes and Ears Are Open:
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail In Conversation with Tanya Talaga
Tanya Talaga has been a journalist at the Toronto Star for twenty years, and has spent several years writing about the seven Indigenous students from remote northern Ontario communities who died while at high school in Thunder Bay. She is the author of the powerful Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (House of Anansi Press, 2017), recently shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction.
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail: This is your first book — you’re a newspaper journalist by training and background — what made you decide to tackle this subject in book form?
Tanya Talaga: You can write news stories – I have for a long time – but I think with news articles and even TV shows like CBC’s Fifth Estate, it’s really hard to identify patterns, to make a big connection for readers. In an article that’s 600 to 1000 words, or even a longer news feature, you can’t do it. You really need the space and breadth of a book to fully explain the history of the treaties and residential schools – what’s happening in Thunder Bay has to be in a broader context. And you really have to tell a story that grabs people.
DMC: You mention how Canadian history is so critical to understanding what’s been happening. Did you do a lot of historical research?
TT: I did. I used the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in Winnipeg – an immense and valuable tool. I think I spent the entire month of September 2016 locked in those archives. As for the rest, it’s remarkable to me: I’m surprised people still don’t know about residential schools and some of the real history of colonization. My editor at Anansi, Janie Yoon, kept saying, “You have to explain it more in the book.” She told me to “get expensive” with my words and do it – just write it all. And I said, “How could they not know?”
DMC: Did you know this history growing up?
TT: It’s different when the history is still living in a way. My great-grandmother was a survivor, so I assumed people knew. I spent a few summers up there around Thunder Bay growing up and my mom grew up in the bush. But no, when I was going to school in urban Canada it wasn’t taught. It was completely swept under the rug.
DMC: But since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), you’d hope there’d be more awareness, right?
TT: Yes. The TRC has done the yeomen’s work on this – educated the country, really. People are just stunned. Everyone can read it online – I can’t say enough about how well it’s written – and a lot of the records are online now through the NCTR. It’s an immense tool – it was invaluable to me. [HRB Editor’s Note: Over 100 Canadians of all backgrounds also “Read the TRC Report” on a YouTube Channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCffE1UIqX23NvDpVXipSVVA]
DMC: Even so, you bring up Dr. Cindy Blackstock, Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, and she quotes [the late] Gord Downie, saying, “we [mainstream Canadians] have been trained to look away our entire lives.” That rings so true. Is the TRC waking us up?
TT: I think – I hope now, we’re trying to process the stories, the truths. I hope our eyes and ears are open. I’ve been writing about this topic and thinking about it for a while and it’s really remarkable to see people’s reactions to it. I’m really touched by people’s reaction to the book, especially.
DMC: So how did the book come together for you, after being connected to the story for so many years?
TT: I wrote it in a year. It was all in my head and had to come fast – in some ways, I had to get it out and out of my mind. But I rewrote the book three times. I did the first draft and thought it was done – then my editor Janie handed it back to me.
Hat’s off to her, because it was hard to figure out how to piece the story together. She’s the one who told me we needed that overarching colonial history on top, the “what does it mean?” connection. Then there are the other two narrative threads running through the story: the history of Thunder Bay, and the main one, the most important one, the story of the kids. But the people in the story appear and disappear from the narrative (although everyone’s connected), and that’s where the top layer of context was needed.
DMC: The combination of styles – ‘straight reporting’ versus creative nonfiction – and the back and forth between past and present – was also really well done. How did you decide the way to write this book?
TT: It’s just how I saw the story. I wanted to honour the kids as much as I could – the families I was speaking to. And the parts with the CNF approach are all based on facts. I could “see” the people and their actions, in the interviews that I had. The testimony of Sky at the inquest was remarkable, for example.
What I was seeing painted a picture – these kids were loved by so many people. They’re like regular kids. I find teenage years quite interesting. You see the struggle of the adult body and child’s mind. It’s remarkable to me. We place all of this expectation on these kids too – and they’re just kids. You really see through the inquest papers and the school records their struggles. And then you talk to their friends and they tell you beautiful things about them: how they’re gospel singers, great poker players, loving and fun people.
DMC: Yes, this reads as an incredibly honest, clear-eyed portrayal of all involved. You don’t shy away from showing the teens’ foibles, or the intergenerational trauma, lateral violence, and cycles of abuse they sometimes struggled with. And you don’t mince words about the Thunder Bay Police officers, coroners, and even the staff of the Northern Nishnawbe Education Centre and Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) High School. Their quotes alone tell such a story.
TT: This is public record. I have all the inquest papers. It was all right there in black and white. But you have to give the stories life to understand what’s happening up there.
DMC: That comes back to what you said about needing a narrative for readers to connect with. You also insert yourself briefly into the story a few times. As a newspaper journalist, was this a challenge at all?
TT: I didn’t want to make myself part of the story, but I wanted people to know why I came to the story. Show the connections to the North. You know, if people asked “what’s your deal?” I’m aware of it and I see things in a different way, perhaps. I see the North and what happens – the lack of human rights.
My grandmother’s Anishinaabe – everyone’s connected - and I thought that people would understand that a little bit more. Sometimes these stories are personal, and as a journalist it’s hard to be removed – all of these kids are being found at the bottom of my grandmother’s reserve. How can I look away?
And then when you’re a mother, it gives you a certain kind of empathy. It’s so hard, sending your kid away with hardly any money, little or no English, to a city far from home. Having a cell phone is expensive, flying back and forth in the North is very expensive – especially in the 2000s.
DMC: We often talk about empathy as “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.” But at one point in the book, you almost inhabit the skin of Pearl Wenjack, whose 12-year-old brother Chanie Wenjack died escaping from residential school in 1966. It is so vividly rendered.
TT: I speak a lot to Pearl and we talk a lot about that. I’m so moved by family members who tell their stories, and when she told me that story about standing on the pontoons and talking with her brother – it’s so crisp and clear in her mind fifty years later. She told me the conversation she had with her brother. I tried to stay true to form. To her.
DMC: It is compelling. And the line you draw from Chanie in the 1960s through to these teens’ deaths today is heartbreaking. I imagine it’s hard not to get cynical. How do you keep going with this difficult work?
TT: The resiliency of the families. I’m amazed. The love and resiliency of the families and communities – everyone wants to share their history and culture. That’s what keeps me going. I know how beautiful and wonderful Anishinaabe people are, and if I can help show others the struggles, I’ll do it. We’re all humans. We’re all the same. There’s not that many. They’re happening in this country – it’s not acceptable anymore.
DMC: I completely agree, but your epilogue brings up two additional recent tragedies. Two new fallen feathers.
TT: Yes, I wish I could say that it had a happy ending. But on May 6 of this year, after a six-year hiatus with no First Nations kids in the water in Thunder Bay, two teens went missing. They disappeared on a Saturday night and were found two weeks later, dead. It was devastating.
DMC: The inquest in 2015 didn’t seem to yield many answers. This is certainly not a story with a tidy resolution. What is happening now?
TT: I hope the families get answers. They don’t have any right now. There are a whole lot of forces at play here. But there’s an investigation happening right now into the Thunder Bay Police services by a civilian group – an arm of the Attorney General – into systemic racism. They are comparing how police handled white murders and deaths versus Indigenous ones in the city. So maybe this investigation will shed new light.
On November 1, 2017 we’re also holding a memorial for the kids in Thunder Bay and sharing the book with the community. And 10% of book sales goes into a memorial fund to the students at DFC – to help them study and thrive at the school now. We’re trying to give back.
And Robert Jago and Canadaland want to do a podcast like S-Town about Thunder Bay, which is very exciting. People are paying attention. They are growing and strong and there need to be many hands doing this work.
Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail is a Canadian writer who specializes in telling hidden histories. She is the author of two books of history and the editor of In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation (Brindle & Glass, 2016). She is currently based in Houston, Texas. www.daniellemc.com @Danielle_Author