BOOK REVIEW: Seven Fallen Feathers: Indigenous Deaths and Avoided Hard Truths in a Northern City

Book Review, Aboriginal Futures, Peter Best

Seven Fallen Feathers- Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City
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Published: September 30, 2017
Over the span of eleven years, seven Indigenous high school students died in Thunder Bay, Ontario. They were hundreds of kilometres away from their families, forced to leave home because there was no adequate high school on their reserves. Five were found dead in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior, below a sacred Indigenous site. Using a sweeping narrative focusing on the lives of the students, award-winning author Tanya Talaga delves into the history of this…
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Seven Fallen Feathers- Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City

” In November 2004 Canada’s Auditor General Sheila Fraser blasted INAC again for wasting money while producing no results…Fraser also pointed out that INAC was spending about $1 billion a year ...

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Reviewed by Peter Best

Tanya Talaga’s award-winning book, Seven Fallen Feathers, is a heart-rending account of the tragic deaths of seven Indigenous teenagersthe Fallen Feathersin Thunder Bay. All seven of these young people died as a result of alcohol consumption. This book professes to deliver “hard truths” about “systemic racism” in both Thunder Bay and Canada, which is, according to Talaga, the cause of these deaths. Her book does not prove that the deaths resulted from systemic racism. Instead, it avoids examining the hard truths of why these teenagers died and what can be done to prevent more deaths.

All seven were from remote fly-in reserve communities, and their parents had sent them to Thunder Bay to attend the Indigenous-owned and managed Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. Talaga skilfully describes why the parents sent their children to this school. They wanted to give their sons and daughters a chance in life when their home reserves offered no opportunities.

The picture of reserve life she paints is rampant with alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual abuse, violence, primitive living conditions, family dysfunction, mental illness, unresolved grief, and almost complete unemployment. She writes that the dropout rates at the poorly equipped and maintained reserve schools were over 75 percent, and the youth were experiencing “the highest suicide rate in the Western world.” 

The description of these reserve communities will be shocking to readers who haven’t been to such third-world communities in Canada. Of course, not all First Nations communities are like these, but Talaga’s description demonstrates that the conditions are completely unsolvable by spending more money. A fundamentally different approach is required, but she appears to be oblivious to that reality.

So these teenagers, barely literate and poorly educated, with no experience of urban life, were sent to Thunder Bay, to be boarded in the homes of Indigenous people and to attend the Indigenous-run high school. The boarding homes were screened by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), and the students’ board and room was paid for by Canadian taxpayers, who were never given any credit for their commitment to helping these students create a better life for themselves.

The boarding hosts were supposedly trained and given strict rules to follow. Apparently, many of these host families were either incompetent or indifferent to their guardianship responsibilities. As a result, these poor, lost teenagers frequently skipped school and lived, for the most part, an unsupervised life of drugs, pizza, violence (usually Aboriginal on Aboriginal), random sex, shopping malls, and, most damaging and persistent, binge drinking. The amount of alcohol these kids drank is appalling. The official cause of death of one of the teenage girls was alcohol poisoning, caused by consuming an entire 40 oz. bottle of liquor.

So who’s to blame, and what’s the solution?

Here’s where Talaga’s book descends into irresponsibility, and where other Canadians who reviewed the book missed an opportunity to help Indigenous students and their home communities.

Instead of properly blaming the reserve system, Talaga blames the “colonialists,” the “white faces,” whom she describes as:

The white face is the face of business and commerce and the rule of law. It wears button-down shirts, eats at the Keg, and lives in a cookie-cutter house in a brand-new subdivision with a Kia parked in the driveway. The people who live there are the doctors, the lawyers, and the proprietors of the twin city. On Saturdays they zip around in their cars to the big-box stores on the way to their cottages, or “camps,” so they can play with their powerboats and jet skis. 

Talaga puts the blame for the deaths of these seven teenagers on non-Indigenous people and places no blame on Indigenous people. She blames the police for failing to properly investigate the deaths, and for failing to properly communicate with the families. She blames the coroners for making mistakes without examining what they actually did.

Most significantly, she blames the Thunder Bay “white faces” for their “complicity in this dark chapter in Canada’s history.” But crucially, she offers no facts to support her claim that ordinary Thunder Bay residents should be held responsible for these deaths.

She wrongly places her focus on the human errors committed following these deaths, rather than on the real hard-truth causes of the deaths.

She mentions “the betrayal of the treaties” and “a disregard of treaty rights” as being causes, which are typical throwaway statements, but then she offers no facts in support of her baseless assertions.

Talaga approvingly quotes NNEC’s Toronto-based lawyers who, in the face of overwhelming evidence that the deaths most probably resulted from alcohol-induced accidents, recklessly suggested that one or more of these teenagers were possibly murdered, and that the Thunder Bay police force was to be faulted for not disproving this evidence-free assertion.

She goes on to approvingly quote one of the Toronto lawyers baselessly maligning the administration of justice in northern Ontario by saying that the “rule of law does not operate in the north.” From my experience of practising law in northern Ontario for over 40 years, and as an officer of the court with a sworn duty to maintain public faith in the administration of justice, as were those Toronto lawyers, I say that this is a false assertion. 

Talaga’s solution to this tragic and profound situation is to recommend that the federal government pour more money into new policies and programs that will essentially maintain the status quo. No Martin Luther King, Jr. “fierce urgency of now” for her! And in the meantime, the situation stays the same and the deaths and suicides continue. 

Almost 10 years ago in an interview, Ontario Indigenous leader John Beaucage said of the social dysfunction on remote northern reserves: “We’re going to have to measure our success (in improving the situation) ‘in decades and generations.”

Too bad these seven Fallen Feathers couldn’t wait that long. They need action now. Except for useless talk, too often engaged in over taxpayer-funded steak dinners at the Keg, our elitesboth Indigenous and non-Indigenousremain passive in the face of the suffering and death that Talaga so well describes. These comfortable, well-fed elites are saying to these teenagers: “Wait, be patient. We cannot do justice to you, but our posterity will do justice to your posterity.”

But an infinitely uncertain and remote end like that is not an end; it’s a perpetual prison of the present.

It’s a depressing indicator of the shallow and constricted level of public discourse around Indigenous issues that Seven Fallen Feathers has won numerous awards, and is regarded as a positive contribution to solving the tragic situation of Canada’s First Peoples. Unfortunately, the real message of Seven Fallen Feathers is that the teenagers who died and all other Indigenous youth who are similarly imperilled have been forsaken by Canada’s status quo Indigenous and non-Indigenous elites, including Talaga.

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Peter Best has practised law in Sudbury for the past 45 years. He is the author of There Is No Difference: An Argument for the Abolition of the Indian Reserve System, (thereisnodifference.ca) which has been endorsed by retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Jack Major.