Education and Failure: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers

“To understand the stories of the seven lost students who are the subjects of this book,” Tanya Talaga begins her devastating, angry, and thought-provoking book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City,

you must understand Thunder Bay’s past, how the seeds of division, of acrimony and distaste, of a lack of cultural awareness and understanding were planted in those early days, and how they were watered and nourished with misunderstanding and ambivalence. And you must understand how the government of Canada has historically underfunded education and health services for Indigenous children, providing consistently lower levels of support than for non-Indigenous kids, and how it continues to do so to this day.

Seven Fallen Feathers provides a lot of that necessary context, beginning with a summary of the history of the area on the norther shores of Lake Superior that was once a meeting place for the Indigenous people of the area, then became “the hub of the fur trade,” and then saw the development of the modern city with its “two faces”: “the Port Arthur side is the white face and the Fort William side is the red face.”

Throughout the book, more general historical background is interwoven with the stories of the seven students. Their deaths eventually prompted an inquest intended both to probe what happened and to issue recommendations to improve conditions for and better protect other students who, like them, traveled to Thunder Bay to attend high school. By addressing each student’s case separately, Talaga is able to emphasize their individuality: their personalities, their family situations, the specific conditions of their lives, hopes, struggles, and premature deaths. By presenting them collectively, as the inquest also finally did, she is also able to highlight the common systemic factors that contributed to their deaths: the devastation wrought on their families and communities by the residential school system; the restricted opportunities that forced them to travel far from home to a hostile city to continue their educations; the abuse and racism they faced in Thunder Bay both from residents and from the police, who were slow to investigate when they disappeared and then quick to blame the victims.

Talaga is a good storyteller; her anger and grief are often obvious, but the emotional undercurrents reinforce the book’s purpose, which is not just to inform but to motivate. “Can the settlers and the Indigenous people come together as one and move forward in harmony?” she asks in the Epilogue. This is clearly one of the most important questions currently being raised in “the country that we call Canada”; her book offers, as the subtitle says, “hard truths,” ones that are necessary to face before the next stage, reconciliation, can really be contemplated.

Seven Fallen Feathers left me with a lot to think about. Some of my lingering questions are historical or sociological; more reading, presumably, is the next step there. On a more personal level, the book prompted me to reflect uncomfortably on my own education in the B.C. public schools in the 1970s and early 1980s. If you’d asked me then, I would probably have said that we did pay attention to Indigenous history. Mostly, as far as I recall, this took the form of visiting museums with exhibits that included First Nations art, clothing, and tools — the kind of things always on display at the Museum of Vancouver, for example. We made regular trips to the Museum of Anthropology, too, where we saw the art and artifacts, looked with awe at the vast carvings in the great hall, and wandered through the Haida houses on the grounds. I was used to seeing totem poles on display, in parks as well as in museums, and I always found them impressive but didn’t really inquire into their meaning or how they were being used.

Back then, I would probably have explained all of this as a benign part of Canada’s larger commitment to multiculturalism: to me it was positive and interesting, but also remote from my own life in present-day Canada. I don’t recall ever hearing the terms “residential school” or “sixties scoop,” or learning anything specific about treaties, land claims, or anything else related to the current political or social situation of Canada’s Indigenous population. We took trips to Fort Langley and took away square nails as souvenirs — but the idea that we are still in some sense settlers, that colonialism is an ongoing process, not just something to be reenacted by guides in “period” costumes, would have been wholly unfamiliar to me.

In retrospect, I still think some of this early experience was benign: it’s good that I took for granted the interest and value of Indigenous art and culture, for instance, seeing them as as part of my own national habitus. It’s thought-provoking, however, to consider how the whole idea of multiculturalism, with its celebratory overtones, might have contributed to a certain kind of complacency: for me, as far as I even thought about it self-consciously, looking at Haida carvings and going to Greek Day were about on a par as ways of appreciating “other” cultures.

Though to some extent I do blame public schools that surely should have made the history and politics of my own country seem more urgent to me, my comfortable oblivion to grimmer contexts was certainly, as I got older, partly my own fault. I was never particularly interested in politics, or in Canadian history, so when I got old enough to look outside the school curriculum, I was going in different directions. I almost never read the newspaper as a teenager–though if I had, I wonder if I would have seen anything, in those years, that would have shown me the part of Canada’s history that Talaga’s book addresses, or shown it in the light she does. That I am learning more about it only so belatedly is itself a symptom of educational failures, some of them my own but some of them also systemic, part of the same large and uneven patterns of race and privilege, knowledge and power, that Talaga’s book indicts. Now at least I can see something my childhood self couldn’t: that my ignorance was a luxury her seven subjects never had.

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