Seven Fallen Feathers: Canada’s hidden history exposed

Drawing of the seven feathers described in the novel. Photo credit: Meagan Secord

Tanya Talaga’s novel, Seven Fallen Feathers, brings truth to the surface and shatters the colonial lens many people have when looking at the relationship between Indigenous people and Canadians.

The novel, published in 2017, tells the stories of seven Indigenous youth who died while attending school in Thunder Bay, Ont. and how no one knows the truth about how five of them ended up in the rivers surrounding Lake Superior.

The deaths of Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Paul Panacheese, Kyle Morisseau, Reggie Bushie and Jordan Wabasse, and the lack of information around them sparked an inquest into the justice system in Thunder Bay.

With each death, there is a string of unfollowed police protocols such as missing persons reports being filed several days after the 24-hour mark, police not contacting families to notify them that their children were missing, interviewing under-aged youth without a parent present and not notifying a family when their children’s body had been found.

The stories of Indigenous people being verbally harassed, physically assaulted, terrified to speak to law enforcement and ultimately killed aren’t buried by the police like they were for decades prior as stated in the book.

Talaga’s novel pulls no punches when it comes to the truth and forces the readers to open their eyes to the horrors of Canada’s best-kept secret: Indigenous genocide.

The deaths set the stage for a much deeper conversation and give Talaga an opening to dive into Indigenous history in Canada. A history that many don’t know is stained with red.

Residential schools, missing and murdered Indigenous women, suicide epidemics, systematic racism and the blatant ignorance of the justice system, are all brought to light in just 315 pages.

Talaga’s book touches on the topics covered in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report released in 2015 and the final report for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls released in June of this year. Both only begin to highlight the injustices Indigenous people in Canada have faced.

Both reports use real anecdotes from Indigenous people to outline the problems plaguing them. Stories of reporting missing sisters and having police laugh as well as detailed accounts of the trauma the residential school system inflicted. Seven Fallen Feathers goes into more detail about both

Talaga uses her journalistic skills to weave together a timeline of the horrifying history of Indigenous peoples in Canada starting all the way back with Chanie Wenjack, the youth who died on the train tracks after escaping a residential school in 1966. She uses his story to start the investigation into the seven deaths.

Wenjack fled Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School with nine others after being sexually assaulted by older students. Sexual, physical and mental abuse were common in the residential school system and is a large factor in the Indigenous mental health crisis. The Cheif Talaga interviewed for the book said she had to start with stories of the past, such as Wenjacks, in order to fully understand how devastating the deaths of the seven youth are.

Talaga speaks with family members, friends, chiefs, guidance counselors and more to get the full scope of the seven tragedies the Indigenous people in Thunder Bay have faced and shares the stories in a captivating way that makes the reader feel like they are witnessing them.

The research and dedication Talaga put into Seven Fallen Feathers shines through not only the pages of the book but in the countless awards such as the RBC Taylor Prize 2018 and the Indigenous Literature Award, it has won.

Forget Shakespeare and One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest, Seven Fallen Feathers should be a must in every secondary school curriculum.

Truth and reconciliation starts with an informed public and this book is just the way to accomplish it.