Book Review: Seven Fallen Feathers, Racism, Death and Hard Times in a Northern City

Seven Fallen Feathers, Racism, Death and Hard Times in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga. (312 pages, Anansi Press, 2018) — a book review by Judy Koch.

This is an historical novel about indigenous youth and the education system that they endured in Canada between the nineteenth and the twenty-first century. It shows how residential schools and post-residential schools affected them — the background of those institutions, and how many children died in them. It tells the story of the Nishwabee Aski Nation of Thunder Bay and northern Ontario.

The book begins with a quote from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “Cultural genocide is the destruction of those structures and practises that allow the … to continue as a group. States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, Spiritual practises are forbidden and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed, and most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next. In its dealings with aboriginal people Canada did all these things”.

The treatment of Indigenous people in Canada was seen by the architects of apartheid in South Africa as a guide.

Thunder Bay, where the children went to high school, is a city of two solitudes. Port Arthur is white. Fort William is Indigenous. Port Arthur is on the north shore and has many two-story brick houses with a beautiful view of Lake Superior.

Fort William is staunchly working class with small bungalows or two-story homes, many in dire need of repairs. Most have pickup trucks in front. The Kaministiqua River meanders through both parts of Thunder Bay. There are many industries in Fort William, including two generating stations owned by Ontario Power. There is the Resolute Forest Products mill. Logging trucks keep coming and going. There is also a Bombardier Assembly plant which makes streetcars. In 2009 the City Hall opened. Many buses come here. In 2014 the Courthouse opened. It is almost one city block and six stories high. It has signs in English, French and Objibwe. There are also many tall grain elevators.

Aboriginal people live on the outskirts of the town. Their houses often lack proper heating and plumbing.

In 1870 the Sisters off St. Joseph opened a Catholic Orphanage. Many aboriginal girls were admitted and the place soon accepted boys since the place got money for each child admitted. It became the St. Joseph Indian Residential School or the Fort William Indian Residential School. In 1907 it moved to a new location.

There were seventeen residential schools in Ontario. Aboriginal students were expected to come to these schools according to the Indian Act of 1867, passed under the government of Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald.  The RCMP and truant officers brought native children to these schools. The buildings were in terrible condition. Many were overcrowded and often filthy. Plumbing was often faulty. The washrooms, the water in the washbowls, the floors were filthy. There were cockroaches, offensive odours, and no money for repairs.

Children were poorly clothed and lacked adequate nutrition. At the Cecilia Jeffrey Residential School in Round Lake, near Kenora, the children ate vegetables three times a week, fruit two times a week, candy three times a week and had lard at all meals. In another school there were experiments done on supplements, without the consent of the children or their parents. They were not given proper medical care when they got sick. Thousands died. Many children were sexually abused, both by teachers and older children. Thousands ran away.

After the residential schools were closed down the replacement schools were often substandard. They lacked science labs, gymnasiums and libraries. Many Indigenous children came from the reserves where there the houses were substandard and so was the food and clothing. They often have to boil water. The houses often lack electricity. Many natives have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and dental problems. They don’t have hospitals, fire departments or functional schools. Schools on the reserves end at grade eight.  When students went away to complete their education they never had seen stop lights or buses and were thus unprepared for life in big cities. Many became alcoholics. 

The book tells the story of seven of these children: Jethro Anderson, Curran Strong, Paul Panachese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushy, Kyle Morisseau and Jordan Wabase. All of them had similar, tragic endings. 

One of these youths, Jordan Wabase, went missing February 7, 2011.  He did not show up for supper that night or phone to say that he would be late. He did not show up for hockey practices. He also did not call his girlfriend. He was last seen by friends at 9:30 p.m. on the city bus. He got off to go to his boarding house. He had been drinking. The last image of Jordan was on Thunder Bay transit video footage at 10:00 p.m. 

Jordan’s boarding house parents called the police on Feb. 8 to report him missing. On February 11 an article about Jordan appeared in the Chronicle Journal. 

The Thunder Bay Emergency Task Unit did a ground search for him that day. They did not issue an amber alert, which they normally do for missing aboriginal youth. The next day they made missing person’s posters. 

On February 13 a community search team went looking for him. They found a baseball cap and footsteps in the river snow. The Nishnawbe Indigenous Police force was contacted. The Ontario Provincial Police divers combed the river for two days but found nothing. The Cat Lake search team found his right running shoe. In May, Jordan’s body was found by the Thunder Bay police. A friend of Jordan’s, Ariana Rollin was told that a man, Steven Cole, had a fight with Jordan and pushed him into the river. He denied this when he was interviewed by the police. The file on Jordan’s death assembled by the Thunder Bay Police was marked ‘accidental”.

The police did not take the deaths of these seven youths seriously. The coroner’s reports were destroyed soon after they were done, denying closure to relatives.  However, the local aboriginal circle has a yearly memorial walk to remember residential schools and how it affected the children. Every September 30 Indigenous people from across Canada gather at the Fort William City Hall and walk to the residential school. It is important never to forget what happened there.  A national holiday, soon to be declared by Ottawa, in consultation with the Assembly of First Nations, will honour survivors and their families.