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.

Broken: Katherena Vermette, The Break

We have all been broken in one way or another.

I probably wouldn’t label Katherena Vermette’s The Break as “crime fiction,” but it’s a good example of the difficulty and, at some level, the inutility or pointlessness of genre distinctions. It is certainly a novel organized around a single crime, and its plot includes an investigation into “whodunit” and why: its revelations involve social, political, and personal issues far more deep and complicated than we expect from, say, one of Agatha Christie’s puzzlers, but that just means if it is crime fiction it is in a different tradition than hers–there are a lot of genre writers, after all, whose plots are about social justice as much as individual cases.

I was thinking about this question of labels and categories because reading The Break I found myself wondering if it would be appropriate to assign it in the class I teach on “mystery and detective fiction.” I kept thinking how well it lends itself to the basic interpretive approach we often take: looking at the central crime as a symptom of whatever is wrong or broken in the world of the novel, and then at its investigation and (when it happens) its solution as the novel’s proposal for what it would take to fix things–to end up with what, on the novel’s terms, looks like justice. We often focus on who helps and who hinders the investigation, and about who is and who isn’t able to solve the crime: in a lot of the books we read, paying attention to these basic elements of the plot reveals patterns about who is or isn’t listened to, who does or doesn’t have authority or power–thematic patterns that usually turn out to reflect whatever moral rot or societal failure has led to the crime.

The crime at the heart of The Break can definitely be read in this “symptomatic” way. Though on one level it is a vicious act by a particular person, the novel sets it in a wider context of prejudice, hardship, and (sometimes worst of all) callous indifference that, while not mitigating at all the horror of the violence or removing the perpetrator’s specific culpability, still complicates our response, both to her individually and to the situation as a whole. It is easy enough, in the story Vermette has constructed, to lay the blame for the specific attack that sets the novel’s parts in motion. It is much harder, by the end of the book, to imagine that locking up one lost soul will actually do much to create a safer, happier, more just world for any of the people whose stories we’ve been following.  So much is wrong: there is so much tragedy, some of it at the same level of explicit violence, but a lot of it more subtle, pervasive, and elusive. The Break is the only fiction listed as a resource on the website for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls: as that suggests, it is about historic and systemic problems. But as it effectively dramatizes, these are always intractably personal problems as well.

Formally, The Break is well structured to show that reciprocity between systemic problems and individual lives. Its interlocking voices carry our attention outwards from the precipitating incident, but also always keep us connected to it, so that we don’t think about it by itself but as part of a web of relationships and circumstances. The only one of these voices that I found a bit strained was the one that actually opens the book, which recurs as a framing device: by the end of the novel I could appreciate better that it reflects a belief in continued presence where my own beliefs would allow only absence. This kind of spiritual continuity is one source of strength for the characters in The Break. Another is their strong family ties, and particularly, conspicuously, the ties between them as women: it is striking how peripheral the male characters seem, even when they are loved and cherished by the novel’s women–“all these women,” as one of the police officers observes, “holding each other up.”

The Break is both polished and gripping, and it avoids seeming like fiction written solely “with a purpose,” though at the same time it clearly has one and, I think, fulfills it: to put it in clichéd but apt terms, Vermette puts human faces on a problem that remains a remote abstraction for too many Canadians. I had actually hesitated to pick up The Break because it was a contender in Canada Reads this year. I find the rhetoric of Canada Reads off-putting: too often, the program seems to approach literature as medicine rather than art, urging us to read what is good for us (“one book is chosen as the title the whole country should read”). I’m glad I paid attention to what other readers I know were saying about it, though, and gave it a chance. It probably was good for me, and it’s also a good novel.

Update: Kerry Clare pointed me to this really interesting and useful review by Carleigh Baker. I didn’t realize (because I hadn’t previously read any other reviews of The Break) that the genre question has come up a lot already — though it obviously makes perfect sense to me that it has. I was surprised by this objection to considering the novel as crime fiction:

This brings up another issue with the critical treatment of The Break. It has already been considered by reviewers as a whodunit mystery and a police procedural, which unfortunately takes the work completely out of context. It is, in fact, a powerful indictment of the real-life police investigation of crimes involving indigenous victims in Winnipeg, both female and male.

This seems to presuppose that mysteries routinely take the side of the police, or at any rate that within the genre you won’t find a critique or even an “indictment” of official law enforcement. I would say that even within the subgenre of police procedurals you can find plenty of skepticism about how just and accountable the police are (think of The Terrorists, for instance, which pretty directly proposes that the police themselves deserve that label), but also many series feature amateur sleuths or private investigators working outside the state system precisely because they want to raise doubts about the capacity of of that system to address the real problems the books explore.

I wonder if the anxiety about (mis)labeling The Break as crime fiction is a self-perpetuating assumption that crime fiction isn’t taken seriously so the issues the novel focuses on won’t get the serious consideration they deserve if that’s what people think it is. A possible counter-argument is that (as mystery writers concerned with social justice issues are well aware) you can often reach a wider audience with your political concerns if you package them as genre fiction.

Best Canadian …

(cross-posted to The Valve)

There has been a lot of CanCon around this week, what with the holiday formerly known as ‘Dominion Day‘ and all.* So, for instance, the Globe and Mail ran a story about revising the canon of great Canadian novels.

Thirty years ago dozens of scholars, critics, authors and publishing types gathered for four days in Calgary for what was billed as the National Conference on the Canadian Novel. Organized by the University of Calgary in association with publisher McClelland & Stewart and Dalhousie English professor Malcolm Ross, the conference, a raucous and controversial affair, became famous for two things. The first was the publication of the results of a ballot mailed earlier to participants in which they were invited to choose “the most important 100 works of Canadian fiction” according to three categories: “major,” “significant” and “secondary importance.” The second entailed the selection of “the 10 best Canadian novels yet written.” Critics decried (and continue to decry) its attempt to create a literary consensus as both a misguided nationalist holdover from the 19th century and a rank marketing/promotion stunt on behalf of M & S’s New Canadian Library, which Ross founded in 1958 and which, at the time of the Calgary conference, had more than 150 “classics” in print as paperbacks. (Ross later described Calgary as “the most painful experience” of his career.) The NCL still exists, winnowed down now to 110 titles. However, while the notion of “literary excellence” continues to hold sway, notions of a fixed canon or canons, of “shared literary values,” are pretty much in tatters. Even in 1978, as one participant in the Calgary conference observed, “we know that literary reputations are not built and perpetuated by any lists.”

Still, lists are fun. Or they can be, if undertaken in a spirit of play and gamesmanship.

And so, with this in mind, The Globe and Mail thought it might be, well, fun, or at least interesting, 30 years on from the Calgary conference, 50 after the creation of the NCL, to come up with a new Cancon semi-canon – or should that be Can-on? – for the first decade of the 21st century.

My colleague Dean Irvine was among those consulted, and there has since been some spirited discussion on our DalNews site, with lots of further nominations.

I’m not about to volunteer a competing list–first, because I’m not nearly as well-informed or up-to-date about Canadian fiction as any of those called on, and second because, like them, I find the process of canon-formation more interesting than the end result in any case (there’s nothing like having to choose between unlike alternatives to focus the mind). Still, as some evidence of my citizenship, I’m pleased to say that I could name a handful of Canadian novels I particularly like that I didn’t spot on anyone else’s list (though I wouldn’t necessarily make a pitch for any of them as one of the 10 best): Audrey Thomas‘s Intertidal Life, for instance, has long been a favourite of mine; though perhaps by now the novel has become cliched, I still have a strong visceral response to Timothy Findley’s The Wars; and I thought Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park was rather extraordinary. Now I definitely want to read Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Overall, though, I seem to consider the Canadian fiction I read as simply keeping company with my other books, rather than as a category (or canon) apart; I don’t feel a strong sense of my own identity being tied up in it either.

For no reason I can really think of, I have a more fiercely loyal relationship to a number of Canadian films. Maybe that’s because many Americans have read at least some Canadian authors, but very few have seen Canadian movies? I don’t know. In any case, here’s my list of my own idiosyncratic top 5 in this category:

Bye Bye Blues: This beautifully filmed, bittersweet film, one of my all-time favourites Canadian or not, tells the story of a woman who returns to her home town on the prairie while her husband is a POW; to support herself and her child, she begins singing in a blues band. The film deftly illustrates the challenges women’s wartime activities posed to conventional gender roles. It’s also a love story, sort of, with no Hollywood-style magical thinking at the end.

Jesus of Montreal: There are scenes in this film that have haunted me since I first saw it in 1989; no doubt the emotionally wrenching soundtrack featuring Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares and the Pergolesi Stabat Mater is part of what makes it so unforgettable. Courtesy of YouTube, here’s a teaser:


The Barbarian Invasions
: Sex, cancer, philosophy…what more could you want?

Who Has Seen the Wind: Is it because I’m not from the prairies that I am more moved by seeing them than by reading about them? This movie contains the saddest scene ever. I’ll just say it involves a birthday party and a large tray of uneaten sandwiches.

My American Cousin: I’m pretty sure this is not a great movie. My father spent youthful summers picking fruit in the Okanagan Valley, and we used to vacation there every year, usually at Lake Osoyoos, so one reason I feel attached to this film is simple nostalgia. But it has a certain naively quirky charm, plus there’s a girl in it who went to my highschool.

Finally, my top Canadian song, in an outstanding performance:

Would anyone else like to highlight any of their Canadian favourites, in any category?


*Gosh, I’m sure glad Wikipedia included that helpful disambiguation note; I would have looked a right fool toting those dominoes around.