Louder Than Thunder
Portrait of Anishinaabe Canadian journalist and author Tanya Talaga, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, March 9th, 2018. (Photo by Ian Willms / Boreal Collective for the RRJ)

A black Chevrolet Monte Carlo leaves the city of Toronto, heading north to the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs west to the small community of Raith, Ontario. It’s the 1970s, and a young Tanya Talaga is riding in the back of her mother’s car, seats trimmed with ivory leather, to the Northern com­munity to visit family for summer vacation. For city-dwellers, going to the cottage or cabin usually means heading somewhere in Muskoka—somewhere settled. Raith is different.

An hour north of Fort William First Nation, Raith is less of a town and more of a stop along the highway—it’s in the bush. It lies adjacent to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where the Ojibway lived before settlers planted their boots and drew up treaties to dictate where First Nations people would live—in segregated reservations. From the highway, run-down houses are obscured by thick brush. Raith is sweltering in the summer, but it was during those summers that, as a child, Talaga went fishing in an old steel boat, set rabbit traps with her relatives, and hung out in a wood cabin with no indoor plumbing and an outhouse. Of the latter, she says, it was a horror show for a city kid.  

In Thunder Bay, a more urban spot, Talaga has relatives, including great-aunts who she would also visit during those summers. There have always been Cree and Ojibway people in the area; it’s where they would meet up to trade, travelling by the rivers and streams. Since the city’s amalgamation in 1970, the fallout from the residential school system played a significant part in shaping dynamics within the city, creating tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. For the most part, Talaga was sheltered from this conflict. Still, there were stories of inequality. She knew Indigenous women shouldn’t walk alone at night. There was a separate hospital, the sanitorium, for the Indigenous population, which had high rates of tuberculosis at the time. Even the two former cities that made up most of Thunder Bay seemed to be two separate worlds: Fort William, an urban setting for working class Indigenous folk, and Port Arthur, which remains populated by the middle class.  

A veteran journalist who has been working at the Toronto Star as a reporter for more than 20 years, Talaga knows the area intimately. It’s why, decades after her summers at the cabin, she returned—this time, to report. Talaga found herself digging deeper into the racial tensions that were splitting apart the idyllic setting of her summer vacations. There were stories of conflict (resource developers who wanted to take over ancestral Indigenous lands) and violence (women and girls who went missing or were murdered, years before the Canadian government probed into the issue). She was pretty much alone, one of few Indigenous reporters covering some of Northern Ontario’s most vulnerable communities.

Now, Talaga has released her first book, Seven Fallen Feathers—a deep dive into the deaths of seven Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay, located minutes away from her summertime spot.  

Getting here wasn’t easy. Despite the increased presence of Indigenous journalists within mainstream media for more than 20 years, only recently have newsrooms carved out dedicated space for Indigenous issues. That reportage can be complicated. The Indigenous beat unravels emotion and shame from some of Canada’s darkest places and most marginalized citizens. Like Talaga, I know this firsthand: As a young Ojibway journalist, I have seen and experienced the hurt that runs through the blood of Indigenous people. It’s a pain that sticks in your gut, an intergenerational trauma. But there is light in these struggles, and the work of Indigenous journalists aids in reconciliation. Young reporters like me would not have a place in this industry were it not for those who came before—like Talaga.

Talaga’s passion for Indigenous storytelling is fierce. She mined the Indigenous issues beat before there was a place for it in the newsroom, and told the stories she cared about because they needed to be heard—and no one else would tell them. Talaga’s presence as a pioneering Indigenous journalist will have a lasting effect on newsrooms, inspiring young Indigenous writers to seek out stories to tell about their own communities.  

 

The first thing Talaga saw when she got off the plane in Thunder Bay in April 2011 was Mount McKay. Towering over the city, it’s a spiritual hub, where pow wows for Fort William First Nation are held. The mountain lies on the south side of the Kaministiquia River and divides the city of Thunder Bay from Fort William First Nation, a physical boundary that has historically separated the Ojibway reserve from the urban world.

That day, Talaga was on a routine assignment for the Star, reporting on low voter turnout among Indigenous people in anticipation of the next federal election. First interview on the docket: Stan Beardy, the Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political body that oversees 49 First Nations in Northern Ontario. The territory of the Nishnawbe Aski Nations stretches from Manitoba, north to Hudson Bay and James Bay, and Quebec lies to the east. It is home to 45,000 people who, prior to 2000, were relatively invisible to the rest of the country, thanks to mainstream media. Beardy served Nishnawbe Aski Nation as Grand Chief for 12 years and, in 2012, the final year he held office, the territory had been in the national news dozens of times.

Talaga headed to the third floor of the Victoriaville Centre mall to interview Beardy, in the Nishnawbe Aski Nation Band office. The building is a lasting mark of drab 1970s architecturethe rugged postmodern beige brick and panelling have seen better days. Much like the overcast skies of early spring, the band office is grey from floor to ceiling. As the pair sat in a drab boardroom, Talaga began asking question after question for her voter turnout story—how few Indigenous people voted, the possibility of Indigenous people swinging an election if they all voted together, about former New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton. But Beardy was thinking about something else, something deeper: Jordan Wabasse, a Grade 9 student in Thunder Bay, had been missing for 70 days. He had travelled 500 kilometres from his home in Webequie First Nation to attend high school in the city and disappeared that February. Wabasse would be just one of seven Indigenous youth in the city, there for an education unavailable in their northern communities, to be found dead in 10 years.

As Talaga pressed on in her questioning, Beardy couldn’t contain his exasperation. “Why aren’t you writing about Wabasse?” he asked. She didn’t have a satisfactory answer. The interview changed direction: Beardy went on to tell her that the young man had disappeared but no one was reporting it. “I stopped and I listened,” Talaga remembers. “When he said that to me it was like lights just went off.” Disbelief turned into nausea as Beardy explained the situation and questions began flooding her mind. What do you mean six students died and a seventh is missing? Where are the news trucks to cover this? But there was nearly nothing in the papers, or on TV.

Then Beardy opened up about his own heartbreak. On August 1, 2004, Beardy’s 19-year-old son Daniel died after being attacked and brutally beaten while he was at a party in Fort William First Nation. The assault left him battling for his life in intensive care for 30 hours. At the time, Daniel was the second-rated goalie in Junior A hockey, heading for the NHL. Wabasse was also a goalie. “I trusted Tanya, and a lot of times with the media they will try to interpret what they think you should be saying,” says Beardy. “So, I shared my personal experience with her. This is something that’s very close to my home, my heart, my life.”

Talaga has a way of encouraging strangers to confide in her their deepest pains. She is a natural listener, and hearing Beardy, she realized there was something much larger at stake in Thunder Bay than a political election story. There was something wrong in this city, a truth she understood as the weight of Beardy’s words settled into her chest.  

The pair left the boardroom shortly after so Beardy could show Talaga, in person, the sites of tragedy in their community. He took her to an area near the Kaministiquia River, beneath Mount McKay. Early spring hadn’t melted all of the snow, but mud was forming as the thawing earth began releasing its moisture. Standing by the river, Beardy nodded to Talaga: “This is where we think Jordan is.” It’s the spot where search parties found one of the boy’s sneakers. Talaga felt ill. “I stopped what I was doing and I checked myself,” she recalls. “I realized, okay, stop being this Toronto-centric reporter and remember who you are, where you are, and who you’re listening to.”

 

Talaga was born in the suburbs, in Scarborough, Ontario, to Sheila and David Talaga in 1970. On her dad’s side she’s Polish. From her mom, she received her Anishinaabe heritage.  

Journalism wasn’t always in the cards. Talaga never attended a formal journalism school, instead studying Canadian politics and history at the University of Toronto in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She started volunteering at Victoria College’s The Strand newspaper during her undergraduate degree, and became hooked on news. “I loved being able to tell stories, to be a fly on the wall and to write what was happening and to meet people that I normally wouldn’t meet,” she says. Talaga also wrote for the university’s paper, The Varsity, where her career began to take shape. It’s where she learned to write and report, honing her skills working with Naomi Klein, Rachel Giese, and Simona Chiose. By 1994, Talaga was The Varsity’s news editor.

Her experience at the student papers helped Talaga land an internship with the Star in May 1995. She shared a desk with another intern, Michelle Shephard, now the paper’s national security reporter. The two young women bonded quickly. “We became fast friends mainly because we were both so young and freaked out to be working at the Star,” Shephard says. “We were pretty much thrown into the deep end and ended up treading water together so we wouldn’t drown.”

After the internship, Talaga secured a position with the Star as a general city reporter. But it wasn’t until she joined the Queen’s Park bureau 14 years later to cover provincial politics that she began exploring stories of Indigenous injustice. There, she got crafty. Her colleagues—among them Robert Benzie, Rob Ferguson, and Jim Coyle—were all big hitters in hard news, and she saw an opportunity: she would write features instead, and find more leeway in the subject matter of her material. “To me it was a wide-open territory [that] nobody was writing about,” Talaga says. “Nobody.”

In late 2009, she began covering the mineral-rich area known as the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario. As Talaga describes it, the area was supposed to provide the province with its next big resource development boom. She spoke directly with First Nations leaders Beardy (the two would meet again in Thunder Bay the following year) and Sandy Lake Chief Adam Fiddler, who warned the provincial government that there would be consequences if a controversial land bill was passed. Tension developed between local Indigenous communities, the provincial government, and mining companies because of the lack of free, prior, and informed consent in how the area would be developed. The leaders believed the bill would give the government final say on how the land would be developed. The impact would rival the signing of Treaty 5 a century prior, which ceded 100,000 square kilometres to the British Crown. Talaga reported from the scene as local First Nations communities blockaded the development site for two months.  

“This is where she really cut her teeth on Indigenous matters, in terms of the policy matters,” says Benzie, Queen’s Park bureau chief for the Star.  “There would be days when there would be a story coming in here and she would say, ‘Look, if I don’t do this I’m not sure anyone else will in any other news organizations.’” Benzie already knew Talaga from his reporting days with the National Post. She was always one of the Star reporters he hoped to run into on assignment because of her warm and friendly attitude, he says. Her personality and skill as a reporter charmed Benzie into inviting Talaga onto his Queen’s Park team in 2009. “You want people who work hard, are smart, are decent, and who will look for stories that maybe we otherwise wouldn’t find,” he says.

But Talaga was only just getting started. Through her conviction and passion for the stories she covered, she’s been able to gain the trust of her sources by getting to know them as individuals, says Benzie.  

 

When Talaga returned to Toronto in 2011, after learning of Jordan Wabasse’s story, she began covering the deaths of Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay through a series of articles published in the Star. The first story ran on May 8, 2011, when Wabasse was still missing. Talaga was the first to draw the connection to the six other students from Nishnawbe Aski Nation who were in the city to attend high school who had been found dead. Many reserves in the North can’t provide secondary education and if youth want to complete their education, they have to attend school hundreds of kilometres away from their families. This was the case for the seven youths Talaga would profile. The disbelief that these kids had died so far from home, in a community close to her own upbringing, along with the fact that no one else was reporting on them, drove her to continue covering the stories.

In the series, Talaga’s articles looked at the systemic problems facing Indigenous communities in the North—unemployment, lack of education, health care—to bring in a much-needed element of historical context for those unfamiliar with Indigenous issues in Canada. But it was her humanizing storytelling that was most compelling. She constructed personified narratives—who these youth were, their motivations and dreams—that connected complex lives to the names of the missing. “She’s a passionate person and she was never regardless of what beat she was in. She was never someone who just mailed it in,” remembers Benzie. “She was always somebody who got into the story, got to know the people she was writing about, cared about them. I think that you can see that in the book and you can see that in her stories.”

Exploring a story so emotionally devastating can be challenging—reporters must fight to remain distant, to not get too involved. Talaga found a delicate balance. She was able to deliver the facts about the seven youth in Thunder Bay in an objective and straightforward manner. At the same time, she got to know the families and friends of those youth—where they came from, who was back home waiting for them—to tell a greater story about love and resiliency. The stories were powerful tales of loss, heartache, and community that shook readers.

Eventually, the stories of these youth—their lives cut abruptly short, and the dark truths behind their deaths—became the centrepiece for Talaga’s debut book, Seven Fallen Feathers.

The book, released in 2017, digs not only into the lives lost in Thunder Bay, but also the issues still lingering for Indigenous communities across the country. Decades since the Indian residential school system was abolished, Indigenous people have continued to struggle. Children are still taken away from their families at the hand of child welfare societies in disproportionate numbers. Some must leave their homes if they want to get an education, like the seven students Talaga profiles. Seven Fallen Feathers notes the resilience of Indigenous communities and their strength to continue living against all the weight of the past. “That’s what the book was about at the end of the day. Honouring the kids and the families and the resiliency of the people,” Talaga says. “We’re all still here.”

Putting the book together proved Talaga’s own resiliency. It was a product of seven years of reporting, researching, and writing, covering stories of deep trauma and despair. When Janie Yoon, managing editor at House of Anansi Press, approached Talaga about writing a book in March 2016, Talaga knew she couldn’t stray away from the stories she followed for so long. Yoon was immediately swayed, since at that time the inquest into the seven youths’ deaths was just drawing to a close. “I said, ‘That’s your first book.’”

That June, after covering the inquest into the Thunder Bay deaths for the Star, Talaga headed to a cabin on Lake Superior with her teenage children to write. The lake, the largest and most northern of the Great Lakes, seems to move of its own volition. The backyard of her getaway home rolled down into the clear, cool waters of Lake Superior, a place of childhood remembrance for Talaga. “Every time you fly over [the lake] to get to Thunder Bay, it’s always angry,” she says. “The plane always shakes.” It seemed the perfect setting to work on Seven Fallen Feathers.  

It was the first time, as a full-time journalist and single mother, that Talaga was able to work on a long-form project. From the time that she was a young girl, Talaga had always loved writing and wanted to write a book. This was finally her chance. No one day looked the same when she was writing. “Some days I would just stare at my computer or my cat, like nothing would happen,” she remembers. Like the waters of Lake Superior, the inspiration came in waves. “I’m not the kind of writer that can force myself to write 1,000 words a day just to get it out,” she says. Writing the book was a labour of love, and sometimes Talaga felt like she needed to be in the right place to write it. It would take a lot of reflecting before any words would come out, despite the deadlines she was facing from her publisher. “There were times where I wouldn’t look at anything for months, I would just put it away,” she says.

There were plenty of learning curves, too. Yoon found herself reminding Talaga that not everyone knows the historical context of Indigenous people and how they fit into broader Canadian society. “Sometimes we take for granted that people might know more than they do,” says Talaga. “You can’t just write a throwaway sentence about the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). That has to be backed up with a this long explanation—you can’t assume that everyone else knows.” Her telling of that history provides a vital framework for the book and shows where the deaths of these children fit into the national narrative. Talaga also wanted to avoid Seven Fallen Feathers becoming a true crime read. Instead, she worked to present the reader with the larger societal, cultural, and historical issues that face Indigenous people in Canada.

Throughout the book, Talaga uses her journalistic skills to recreate the lives of the seven youth, all the while weaving together the context of Canada’s history with the residential school system and its fallout effects on Indigenous communities in the North. This includes the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old who died of exposure and starvation when he walked for 36 hours after running away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ontario. In November 1966, a month after Chanie’s body was found, a physician’s inquest was held, though the boy’s family was not informed that it was happening. From the inquest came four recommendations; among them, the final finding noted that the residential school system causes severe emotional and developmental problems for the children sent there. More than 6,750 stories of the traumatic experiences from those who survived being incarcerated in the residential school system throughout Canada were heard from 2009 to 2014. These stories and the tireless commitment by the Truth and Reconciliation commissioners brought together a final report and 94 Calls to Action in order to help Canada move forward.  

For Seven Fallen Feathers, it is this context that Yoon says has been crucial for readers. “It is humanizing, and reminds people that these were actual flesh and blood people,” she says. “I think that’s one of the greatest impacts that this book has had.”

Just one year since that initial pitch, months toiling away by the lake, and nearly seven years after her interview with Stan Beardy in Thunder Bay, Talaga finished Seven Fallen Feathers. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

 

As the conversation around Indigenous issues has opened up on the national stage, the release of Seven Fallen Feathers comes at a crucial moment in Canada’s history. “The issues in Thunder Bay have been in the news constantly, which we didn’t expect,” says Yoon. “Then the book came out, and now it’s reinforced the importance of the whole country looking at the issues surrounding the Indigenous peoples.”

It comes at a pivotal moment, too, for Canada’s news industry. Before the Idle No More movement made national headlines and before the release of the TRC’s final report, Indigenous issues were a blip on the radar of many Canadians. In less than 10 years, the atmosphere and appetite for journalistic content on Indigenous issues has changed significantly.

When Talaga was working on the Ring of Fire series, for example, her articles were seven among hundreds written on the issue that year. The majority were provided by news wires such as the Canadian Press or Canada Newswire, with a few localized publications, like The Hamilton Spectator. But the headlines of these other articles overwhelmingly focused either on the financial benefit of developing the geographical area, with little or no mention of Indigenous communities in the area, or the blockading and protest by First Nations communities because of the tension with the government and mining companies.

But now, Indigenous issues and affairs have gained traction in news organizations have slowly begun to develop specialized beats and teams to cover the stories. In 2015, the TRC called for additional funding for CBC, to support projects like CBC Indigenous, where I work. This has assisted in bringing Indigenous issues to the forefront, including the legacy of the residential school system in Canada and the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Still, CBC’s Lenard Monkman says it remains difficult for Indigenous journalists to find work in private newsrooms. Monkman has been working as a journalist for almost two years with CBC Indigenous. He says that there has been a notable shift in news coverage of Indigenous issues since Idle No More, even though Indigenous stories have always been happening. But thanks to Indigenous journalists, including Talaga, there are now more places in newsrooms for young Indigenous journalists. “We [as Indigenous journalists] are able to tap into our community and tell the story from a different perspective, as opposed to what we’ve been trained to think about ourselves and what we’ve been trained to think about the way that our relationship is with each other in Canada,” says Monkman. “It’s still an exciting time to be an Indigenous journalist in this country.”

Storytelling is a deeply ingrained part of the Indigenous culture that comes through in how Talaga’s stories are written. When you’re Indigenous, it’s difficult to separate yourself from your material—you always feel the urgency of a story, and the complex, deep emotions ingrained in their narratives. In her writing, eloquent language weaves together the immediacy of the news with a humanizing factor, showing her sources as real people that have affected their communities and are loved by their families.

“She’s one of a lot of journalists who have been doing an incredible job covering that situation there [in Thunder Bay] and putting a real human face on it,” says Tim Fontaine, formerly of CBC Indigenous, founder of the satirical Walking Eagle News and host of the satirical television show The Laughing Drum on APTN. Fontaine has only recently gotten to know Talaga on a personal level, but he has been following her work and coverage on Indigenous communities for years. “She’s simply one of the brighter lights and louder voices in there, even though she carries herself quite quietly,” says Fontaine. “She’s managed to make a real impact and I think that’s a testament to her work, to her journalism, and to her craft and writing.”

“Tanya has been a leading voice in Canada, consistent in her coverage of Indigenous issues, whether it was during her years at general assignment, Queen’s Park, or later when she was able to cover the beat full time,” says Shephard, who has known Talaga since their first day as Star interns in the 1990s. “She was always paying attention—I’m just so delighted that her book has come out at a time when the rest of Canada is too.”

 

The story doesn’t end with Seven Fallen Feathers.  

The deaths in Thunder Bay and the racism facing First Nations youth and adults in the city has dominated Canadian news this past year. The disappearance of Tammy Keeash and Josiah Begg, two Indigenous youth, in May 2017 opened old wounds in Thunder Bay. Both were found dead in the McIntyre River, the same river where three of the seven youth in Talaga’s reporting were found. Their disappearance and deaths made headlines in all major Canadian newspapers, from the Star to the Globe. It also sparked feature articles questioning how this could happen.

As Talaga points out, “These are kids coming from Indigenous communities, where there are no traffic lights, there are no fast food outlets, there are no shopping malls. These communities are very different, they’re rural, there’s no clean water. So you’re taking a kid who’s lived their entire life like that and you’re putting them on a plane sending them to Thunder Bay to live with a family they don’t know, you know, 13 or 14. Imagine. That to me is just stunning.”

Talaga’s commitment to covering Indigenous stories and her devotion to Thunder Bay is a testament to her skills as a reporter and has solidified her status as a pioneering Indigenous journalist. “There seems to be a lot of awakening as a result of her book,” says Beardy. “She invested a lot of her own time, her own energy, to find out if there was more than what a person sees on the surface.” 

Recommended Resources
With an increased focus on reporting on Indigenous issues, books, podcasts, and more that will improve your understanding


BOOKS
Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations,
Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada, by Chelsea Vowel *
Seeing Red: A History of Natives in Canadian Newspapers, by Mark Cronlund Anderson
and Carmen L. Robertson.
The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, by Thomas King
The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy, by Arthur Manuel
and Grand Chief Ronald Derrickson
Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, by Tanya Talaga
As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance,
by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
In Search of April Raintree, by Beatrice Mosionier

PODCASTS
Media Indigena, hosted by Rick Harp *
Indian and Cowboy, an Indigenous media network founded by Ryan McMahon *
Missing & Murdered, a CBC News podcast hosted by Connie Walker

INDEPENDENT MEDIA
kukukwes.com
Muskrat Magazine
Red Rising Magazine

WEB RESOURCES
Reporting in Indigenous Communities, an educational guide created by Duncan McCue. Available online at http://riic.ca/
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, www.trc.ca

MAINSTREAM MEDIA OUTLETS
CBC Indigenous
APTN

ALSO: Get to know your local indigenous communities

* Tanya recommends

—Rhiannon Johnson

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