Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Jethro, Curran, Robyn, Paul, Reggie, Kyle and Jordan all died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011. All seven were Indigenous students who were attending high school in the city, far away from their homes and families.
Seven Fallen Feathers tells the stories of these seven individuals. It looks at each of their lives and their situation while they were living in Thunder Bay, as well as the circumstances of their disappearances and deaths. A seasoned journalist at the Toronto Star, Talaga collects stories from their families and communities, as well as details from police and coroner reports, in order to try and understand what happened. She also then draws connections to broader historical and social contexts.
Once started, this book is difficult to put down. At just over 300 pages, Seven Fallen Feathers moves from one compelling story to the next, and seamlessly weaves in facts and history. The writing is crisp and thoughtful.
The story of each individual takes the reader through their living situation in Thunder Bay, and the pressures and challenges kids face while being on their own in a big city. Many high school students coming in from remote northern communities need to learn how to read traffic lights, ride a bus, and exist without parents guiding or watching out for them. This lack of supervision, coupled with the pain and loneliness many of them carry, often becomes a vulnerable combination.
Though conversations around Indigenous rights have become more visible amongst the broader public in the last few years, particularly in regards to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, it is still rare for a writer to explain things with this much clarity and compassion. Talaga outlines the causations, drawing connections between the lives of the seven and the social and historical burdens that made those kids vulnerable. She looks at how the legacy of the residential schools, government regulations and a lack of funding have affected communities, as well as the many ways in which engrained racism is expressed.
By taking the time to go into these kids’ lives and looking at their situations, this book does an exceptional job of laying out the current realities and their root causes. Canada may no longer have residential schools, but northern Indigenous communities still have to send their children away on their own if they want a high school education. Indigenous kids are not set up for success. The book brings this to the forefront of our consciousness.
In one of the latter chapters, a lawyer examining the cases is quoted as saying, “I am of the view once Canadians see the truth of what is going on, they’ll be convinced we need to do something about it.”
Seven Fallen Feathers aims to make us aware of this infuriating truth. It fosters understanding, and is a book that can benefit everyone.
Seven Fallen Feathers was published by House of Anansi Press in September 2017.