Shar­ing a legacy of re­siliency and love

Star re­porter dis­cusses her In­dige­nous iden­tity, her ac­claimed 2017 book and her Massey lec­tures

Toronto Star - - NEWS - JEN­NIFER YANG

For the past two years, Tanya Talaga has barely had a mo­ment to catch her breath. Since the pub­li­ca­tion of her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers, the Toronto Star re­porter has been on a pro­fes­sional tear, win­ning nu­mer­ous writ­ing prizes, com­plet­ing a pub­lic pol­icy fel­low­ship with the Atkin­son Foun­da­tion and mak­ing his­tory as the first In­dige­nous woman to give the pres­ti­gious CBC Massey Lec­tures. Talaga’s lec­ture se­ries, All Our

Re­la­tions, ex­am­ines the legacy of cul­tural geno­cide against In­dige­nous peo­ples and has al­ready been heard by sold-out crowds ev­ery­where from Van­cou­ver to Hal­i­fax. Start­ing Mon­day, it will be heard by the rest of the coun­try, too, with the broad­cast of her Massey lec­tures on the CBC ra­dio show, Ideas.

Ahead of the first broad­cast, the Star spoke with Talaga about her In­dige­nous iden­tity, her evo­lu­tion as a jour­nal­ist and why she in­sisted on hold­ing the first Massey lec­ture in the north­ern On­tario city that started it all: Thun­der Bay.

I’d like to start by talk­ing about your per­sonal his­tory and iden­tity. You’re Pol­ish on your dad’s side and Anishi­naabe on your mom’s side. What kind of re­la­tion­ship did you have with the In­dige­nous side of your iden­tity as a young girl?

I grew up in Toronto and I would spend some sum­mers in north­ern On­tario with my mother in Raith (an hour north­west of Thun­der Bay). She would pack us up in the car and we would head out for the two-days drive north and, in Raith, we would stay with her grand­par­ents, who were res­i­den­tial school sur­vivors that raised her. That, to me, was very much my link with my fam­ily, with my Anishi­naabe side, be­cause we were in the bush.

Grow­ing up in Toronto — it’s weird, es­pe­cially in the time I grew up. I would tell peo­ple, “My dad’s Pol­ish, but my mom’s mom is Ojibwe,” and they would look at me like I had six heads. No­body re­ally got that and, from my ap­pear­ance, ev­ery­one al­ways thinks I’m Ital­ian or Greek.

But when I was a girl up north, I felt like I be­longed. As you men­tioned, your great grand­par­ents were res­i­den­tial school sur­vivors. What has been the legacy of that trauma in your own fam­ily?

It wasn’t un­til I was in my early 20s that I found out I had a sis­ter that was given up for adop­tion, and that my mother had three broth­ers that were put into the chil­dren’s aid sys­tem. So it was then that ev­ery­thing started com­ing to­gether: “Oh, right. Right! This is be­cause of the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.” This is the frac­tured na­ture of my mother’s fam­ily. We’re all close and we’re all lucky be­cause all the kids came back to us, ex­cept for one, and that was my un­cle Alvie, who died. He spent most of his life as a car­ni­val hand and he never re­united with my grand­mother.

It’s the same legacy that ev­ery­one’s had, and that’s part of the rea­son why I write what I write. It’s hard be­cause all In­dige­nous fam­i­lies have so much to over­come be­cause of his­tory, be­cause of col­o­niza­tion. It sounds ridicu­lous when you talk about in­ter­gen­er­a­tional trauma but it’s not; its very real and it goes from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. And those sto­ries are hard to bring for­ward some­times and hard to talk about.

Your first foray into jour­nal­ism was at the Univer­sity of Toronto’s stu­dent news­pa­per, the Var­sity, fol­lowed by an in­tern­ship with the Toronto Star. When you were first start­ing out, was it your goal to write about In­dige­nous peo­ple and is­sues?

My first goal was to get a job, be­cause I was pretty cog­nizant of the fact that I was the only per­son who didn’t go to jour­nal­ism school (in my in­tern­ship year). And so I al­ways felt like I had to work harder than ev­ery­body else.

I was a slave to the as­sign­ment desk, writ­ing gen­eral city news, for years. And some­times I would bring up story ideas con­cern­ing First Na­tions is­sues, specif­i­cally health is­sues, and there wasn’t too much in­ter­est. I think you could ask any In­dige­nous jour­nal­ist that and they would say the same thing; there was no ap­petite in the main­stream me­dia be­cause the main­stream me­dia was run for a long time by a lot of Bri­tish peo­ple.

It’s get­ting bet­ter … but once In­dige­nous edi­tors are mak­ing de­ci­sions about what’s cov­ered, and how it’s cov­ered, that’s when you’re go­ing to see changes, too. It’s the edi­tors who are still in con­trol and mak­ing de­ci­sions. Nowa­days, main­stream out­lets are cov­er­ing In­dige­nous is­sues more than ever be­fore. When did you first no­tice a real shift un­der­way in news­rooms in terms of their in­ter­est in th­ese sto­ries? When the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion re­port came out, for sure. Once that came out (in 2015), once it hit the me­dia, it was ev­ery­where. You couldn’t look away, right — 6,000 dead chil­dren, 150,000 peo­ple went to res­i­den­tial school, all of th­ese sur­vivors that were in­ter­viewed. Those truths, once they’re ex­posed and out there, you can’t put them back. The coun­try had to hear them.

The re­port com­ing out, and the com­mis­sion com­ing out, also co­in­cided with the rise of so­cial me­dia, the rise of the in­ter­net, and the rise of APTN (Abo­rig­i­nal Peo­ples Tele­vi­sion Net­work), which was out there broad­cast­ing and be­com­ing more and more pop­u­lar. CBC In­dige­nous was formed and that’s re­ally helped add to the land­scape. Those are just main­stream out­lets, though; there was al­ways an In­dige­nous me­dia, it just wasn’t re­ally no­ticed.

Five years passed be­tween your first re­port­ing trip to Thun­der Bay and your de­ci­sion, at the urg­ing of your ed­i­tor at House of Anansi, to write your first book about the “seven fallen feathers,” the In­dige­nous kids who died in Thun­der Bay. Why did so much time pass be­fore you con­sid­ered turn­ing this story into a book?

To be hon­est with you, I was a sin­gle mom; I di­vorced in 2010. So, I was a work­ing full-time jour­nal­ist and I had two small kids. At the time, I couldn’t men­tally and phys­i­cally de­vote what I knew I needed to with­out com­pletely killing my­self.

It wasn’t just about the time; this book would also be oc­cu­py­ing places in my mind and my heart, right? I al­ways knew I would write about the seven kids, but I had to be in the right place and time. And Alvin Fid­dler (grand chief of Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion) said that to me: “You weren’t meant to write the book be­fore, but you’re meant to do it now.”

You did even­tu­ally get to a place where you could write this book. But you’re still the mother of two chil­dren, al­beit older now, who share your In­dige­nous her­itage. What was it like to be a par­ent re­port­ing th­ese painful sto­ries about In­dige­nous chil­dren dy­ing of ne­glect, mur­der and sui­cide?

I write about re­siliency and I write about love. All the sto­ries of the kids, of the losses that have hap­pened in our com­mu­ni­ties, also show an in­cred­i­ble love and hon­our­ing of the kids and the youth. Ev­ery­one has gone through so much and I try and tell my kids, “You know, you come from strong stock. You come from many cul­tures; your fa­ther was Irish, I’m Pol­ish as well, and you’re In­dige­nous. So you come from this in­cred­i­ble back­ground, but on your In­dige­nous side, we’re still here. The ef­fects of col­o­niza­tion and geno­cide didn’t work.”

And it’s go­ing to be the youth that will carry us for­ward. I re­ally be­lieve that.

It’s such dif­fi­cult emo­tional ter­ri­tory to im­merse your­self in, es­pe­cially when you have a per­sonal con­nec­tion to the sub­ject mat­ter. What did you do to pro­tect your­self emo­tion­ally and psy­cho­log­i­cally?

I am very lucky to speak al­most daily with Sam Ach­neepineskum. He is an el­der from Marten Falls First Na­tion; he was ac­tu­ally the el­der for the fam­i­lies dur­ing the in­quest for the seven fallen feathers, and he’s be­come my el­der. And I keep in touch with many fam­i­lies and lead­ers in north­ern com­mu­ni­ties fre­quently. I wouldn’t be able to do this work with­out that strong sense of com­mu­nity that’s be­hind me.

Last year, you were cho­sen for the 2017-2018 Atkin­son Fel­low­ship in Pub­lic Pol­icy to write about youth sui­cides in In­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties; this work be­came the ba­sis of your CBC Massey Lec­tures. What was your re­ac­tion when they asked you to do the lec­tures?

It was pretty shock­ing. I had no idea that was the rea­son why my ed­i­tor and pub­lisher wanted to see me. So I met them for din­ner and they said, “You’re go­ing to be asked to be the CBC Massey lec­turer and I went, ‘What?!’ ” I just didn’t re­ally be­lieve it. When I think of who has been asked to be a Massey lec­turer in the past; it’s a lot of older peo­ple, peo­ple who are aca­demics or very well-known in Cana­dian cul­ture and pol­i­tics and arts and let­ters. Names like Martin Luther King Jr., Willy Brandt — No­bel Prize lau­re­ates. I’m like, re­ally? I don’t have much in com­mon with th­ese peo­ple.

But this is sort of one of those times in life where you have to buck up and do it, be­cause this is a plat­form and an hon­our, and you can spread the mes­sage. You can get out there and tell the sto­ries that need to be told. But I’m not jok­ing when I say that I hon­estly spent the next four days hid­ing un­der my bed, be­cause I couldn’t be­lieve I said yes. Were there any rules from the CBC around how you should ap­proach the lec­tures, or were you given free rein?

Free rein. I worked with Philip Coul­ter, he’s the pro­ducer of the Massey lec­tures for the CBC show Ideas. He car­ried a prin­ter with him in his bag to all the cities we were in and he printed up my lec­ture right be­fore I went on stage. So that’s when he (would first see) it.

I think they were pan­ick­ing a lit­tle bit with the first lec­ture think­ing, “Oh my God, I can’t be­lieve she’s writ­ing her lec­ture right up un­til the last minute.” But then they re­al­ized, oh, that’s how she works, and then ev­ery­one sort of set­tled into my rhythm of push­ing it to the last minute.

There were five Massey lec­tures al­to­gether, with the last one in Toronto. But tell me about the first one in Thun­der Bay.

We agreed that if I’m go­ing to do the Massey lec­tures, I wanted to start in Thun­der Bay, which has never had a Massey lec­ture be­fore. For me, it’s where my mom’s fam­ily is from, it’s the city of the seven fallen feathers, it’s a place where chil­dren have come to die. There’s been heartache but also hard work at try­ing to make things bet­ter. This whole en­tire colo­nial project in Canada; it’s all here in Thun­der Bay. It’s al­most a mir­ror of Canada, what’s hap­pen­ing in the rest of the coun­try.

I also told the CBC I wanted to in­di­g­e­nize the lec­tures. I’m not go­ing to just stand up at the lectern and lec­ture; that’s not who I am. I’m not an aca­demic, I’m a sto­ry­teller, and this is go­ing to be told through an In­dige­nous lens and this is about com­mu­nity. That means I want my com­mu­nity up there and I want ev­ery sin­gle com­mu­nity that I go into rep­re­sented on stage when I do th­ese lec­tures.

So we had a push for that and Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion (NAN) stepped up right off the bat and helped us se­cure the largest theatre in Thun­der Bay, which seats 1,500 peo­ple. They opened all the seat­ing up for free, so they in­vited ev­ery­body from the Thun­der Bay com­mu­nity to come see the Massey lec­tures, which means peo­ple didn’t have to pay for tick­ets for $40 or $50 … not only did we have ev­ery sin­gle seat filled, there were also 400 peo­ple stand­ing.

Also, my grand­mother Mar­garet was there, who is 93, her sis­ter … fam­ily came in from Win­nipeg, North Bay. My mom was there, my kids were there, and my mother’s brother. Sit­ting in front of my fam­ily were some of my friends from Nish­nawbe Aski Na­tion. Also in the front row were some of the fam­i­lies of the seven girls from Wapekeka and Po­plar Hill First Na­tion who died by sui­cide.

It was so emo­tion­ally loaded and weighted. And, you know, this is the first time some­body like me had done the lec­tures and had done them in this way. I knew this was our op­por­tu­nity to show Canada: This is how we do it. This is unity, this is re­siliency.

And hon­estly, I carry that night with me.

This in­ter­view has been edited for length and clar­ity.


Since the pub­li­ca­tion of her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers, Star re­porter Tanya Talaga has been on a pro­fes­sional tear.

In All OurRe­la­tions, which sprang from the Massey lec­tures, Talaga ex­plores the legacy of cul­tural geno­cide against In­dige­nous peo­ples around the world.

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