For the last two years, Tanya Talaga has barely had a moment to catch her breath. Since the publication of her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers, the Toronto Star reporter has been on a professional tear, winning numerous writing prizes, completing a public policy fellowship with the Atkinson Foundation, and making history as the first Indigenous woman to give the prestigious CBC Massey Lectures.
Talaga’s lecture series, All Our Relations, examines the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples and has already been heard by sold-out crowds everywhere from Vancouver to Halifax. Starting Monday, it will be heard by the rest of the country, too, with the broadcast of her Massey lectures on the CBC radio show, Ideas.
Ahead of the first broadcast on Nov. 12, the Star spoke with Talaga about her Indigenous identity, her evolution as a journalist, and why she insisted on holding the first Massey lecture in the northern Ontario city that started it all: Thunder Bay.
I’d like to start by talking about your personal history and identity. You’re Polish on your dad’s side and Anishinaabe on your mom’s side. What kind of relationship did you have with the Indigenous side of your identity as a young girl?
I grew up in Toronto and I would spend some summers in northern Ontario with my mother in Raith (an hour northwest of Thunder Bay). She would pack us up in the car and we would head out for the two-days drive north, and in Raith, we would stay with her grandparents, who were residential school survivors that raised her. That, to me, was very much my link with my family, with my Anishinaabe side, because we were in the bush.
Growing up in Toronto — it’s weird, especially in the time I grew up. I would tell people, “My dad’s Polish, but my mom’s mom is Ojibwe,” and they would look at me like I had six heads. Nobody really got that and from my appearance, everyone always thinks I’m Italian or Greek.
But when I was a girl up north, I felt like I belonged.
As you mentioned, your great grandparents were residential school survivors. What has been the legacy of that trauma in your own family?
It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I found out I had a sister that was given up for adoption, and that my mother had three brothers that were put into the children’s aid system. So it was then that everything started coming together: “Oh, right. Right! This is because of the residential school system.” This is the fractured nature of my mother’s family. We’re all close and we’re all lucky because all the kids came back to us, except for one, and that was my uncle Alvie, who died. He spent most of his life as a carnival hand and he never reunited with my grandmother.
It’s the same legacy that everyone’s had, and that’s part of the reason why I write what I write. It’s hard because all Indigenous families have so much to overcome because of history, because of colonization. It sounds ridiculous when you talk about intergenerational trauma but it’s not; its very real and it goes from generation to generation. And those stories are hard to bring forward sometimes and hard to talk about.
I was a slave to the assignment desk, writing general city news, for years. And sometimes I would bring up story ideas concerning First Nations issues, specifically health issues, and there wasn’t too much interest. I think you could ask any Indigenous journalist that and they would say the same thing; there was no appetite in the mainstream media because the mainstream media was run for a long time by a lot of British people.
It’s getting better … but once Indigenous editors are making decisions about what’s covered, and how it’s covered, that’s when you’re going to see changes too. It’s the editors who are still in control and making decisions.
Nowadays, mainstream outlets are covering Indigenous issues more than ever before. When did you first notice a real shift underway in newsrooms in terms of their interest in these stories?
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report came out, for sure. Once that came out (in 2015), once it hit the media, it was everywhere. You couldn’t look away, right — 6,000 dead children, 150,000 people went to residential school, all of these survivors that were interviewed. Those truths, once they’re exposed and out there, you can’t put them back. The country had to hear them.
The report coming out, and the commission coming out, also coincided with the rise of social media, the rise of the Internet, and the rise of APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), which was out there broadcasting and becoming more and more popular. CBC Indigenous was formed and that’s really helped add to the landscape. Those are just mainstream outlets, though; there was always an Indigenous media, it just wasn’t really noticed.
Five years passed between your first reporting trip to Thunder Bay and your decision, at the urging of your editor at House of Anansi, to write your first book about the “seven fallen feathers,” the Indigenous kids who died in Thunder Bay. Why did so much time pass before you considered turning this story into a book?
To be honest with you, I was a single mom; I divorced in 2010. So, I was a working full-time journalist and I had two small kids. At the time, I couldn’t mentally and physically devote what I knew I needed to without completely killing myself.
It wasn’t just about the time; this book would also be occupying places in my mind and my heart, right? I always knew I would write about the seven kids, but I had to be in the right place and time. And Alvin Fiddler (Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation) said that to me: “You weren’t meant to write the book before, but you’re meant to do it now.”
You did eventually get to a place where you could write this book. But you’re still the mother of two children, albeit older now, who share your Indigenous heritage. What was it like to be a parent reporting these painful stories about Indigenous children dying of neglect, murder and suicide?
I write about resiliency and I write about love. All the stories of the kids, of the losses that have happened in our communities, also show an incredible love and honouring of the kids and the youth. Everyone has gone through so much and I try and tell my kids, “You know, you come from strong stock. You come from many cultures; your father was Irish, I’m Polish as well, and you’re Indigenous. So you come from this incredible background, but on your Indigenous side, we’re still here. The effects of colonization and genocide didn’t work.”
And it’s going to be the youth that will carry us forward. I really believe that.
It’s such difficult emotional territory to immerse yourself in, especially when you have a personal connection to the subject matter. What did you do to protect yourself emotionally and psychologically?
I am very lucky to speak almost daily with Sam Achneepineskum. He is an elder from Marten Falls First Nation; he was actually the elder for the families during the inquest for the seven fallen feathers, and he’s become my elder. And I keep in touch with many families and leaders in northern communities frequently. I wouldn’t be able to do this work without that strong sense of community that’s behind me.
Last year, you were chosen for the 2017-2018 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy to write about youth suicides in Indigenous communities; this work became the basis of your CBC Massey Lectures. What was your reaction when they asked you to do the lectures?
It was pretty shocking. I had no idea that was the reason why my editor and publisher wanted to see me. So I met them for dinner and they said, “You’re going to be asked to be the CBC Massey lecturer and I went, ‘What?!’” I just didn’t really believe it. When I think of who has been asked to be a Massey lecturer in the past; it’s a lot of older people, people who are academics or very well-known in Canadian culture and politics and arts and letters. Names like Martin Luther King Jr., Willy Brandt — Nobel Prize laureates. I’m like, really? I don’t have much in common with these people.
But this is sort of one of those times in life where you have to buck up and do it, because this is a platform and an honour, and you can spread the message. You can get out there and tell the stories that need to be told. But I’m not joking when I say that I honestly spent the next four days hiding under my bed, because I couldn’t believe I said yes.
Were there any rules from the CBC around how you should approach the lectures, or were you given free rein?
Free rein. I worked with Philip Coulter, he’s the producer of the Massey lectures for the CBC show Ideas. He carried a printer with him in his bag to all the cities we were in and he printed up my lecture right before I went on stage. So that’s when he (would first see) it.
I think they were panicking a little bit with the first lecture thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she’s writing her lecture right up until the last minute.” But then they realized, oh, that’s how she works, and then everyone sort of settled into my rhythm of pushing it to the last minute.
There were five Massey lectures altogether, with the last one in Toronto. But tell me about the first one in Thunder Bay.
We agreed that if I’m going to do the Massey lectures, I wanted to start in Thunder Bay, which has never had a Massey lecture before. For me, it’s where my mom’s family is from, it’s the city of the seven fallen feathers, it’s a place where children have come to die. There’s been heartache but also hard work at trying to make things better. This whole entire colonial project in Canada; it’s all here in Thunder Bay. It’s almost a mirror of Canada, what’s happening in the rest of the country.
I also told the CBC I wanted to indigenize the lectures. I’m not going to just stand up at the lectern and lecture; that’s not who I am. I’m not an academic, I’m a storyteller, and this is going to be told through an Indigenous lens and this is about community. That means I want my community up there and I want every single community that I go into represented on stage when I do these lectures.
So we had a push for that and Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) stepped up right off the bat and helped us secure the largest theatre in Thunder Bay, which seats 1,500 people. They opened all the seating up for free, so they invited everybody from the Thunder Bay community to come see the Massey lectures, which means people didn’t have to pay for tickets for $40 or $50 … not only did we have every single seat filled, there were also 400 people standing.
Also, my grandmother Margaret was there, who is 93, her sister … family came in from Winnipeg, North Bay. My mom was there, my kids were there, and my mother’s brother. Sitting in front of my family were some of my friends from Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Also in the front row were some of the families of the seven girls from Wapekeka and Poplar Hill First Nation who died by suicide.
It was so emotionally loaded and weighted. And, you know, this is the first time somebody like me had done the lectures and had done them in this way. I knew this was our opportunity to show Canada: This is how we do it. This is unity, this is resiliency. And honestly, I carry that night with me.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jennifer Yang is a Toronto-based reporter covering identity and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar