For Anishinaabe journalist Tanya Talaga, 2022 will be spent working on an urgent, timely book that confronts a question many Canadians have been asking themselves since May: how could we have ignored the unmarked graves at residential schools across the country that contain the bodies of thousands of Indigenous children?
Every Indigenous family, including mine, knew about the graves. My grandmother attended St. Michael’s Residential School in Duck Lake, Sask. In 1910, an Indian agent reported that half the children who had been sent to St. Michael’s had died there; in 1996, it was one of the last residential schools in Canada to close its doors. Only five years old when she arrived at the school, my grandmother tended to her own sister’s grave. She was lucky in one respect: unlike so many others, she knew where her kin was buried.
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As the Indigenous issues columnist at the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail and author of the bestselling books Seven Fallen Feathers and All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, Talaga has led countless Canadians to reckon with this country’s dark and violent history.
Now she is embarking on a three-book deal with HarperCollins Canada, the first of which is set to be published in 2023 and will focus on the legacy of Canada’s residential schools, through the stories of intergenerational survivors. Announcing the deal—as unique for its size as for its ambition—HarperCollins senior vice-president and executive publisher Iris Tupholme described Talaga as “a household name [who] can elevate these much-needed conversations to a national audience. We see these books as ones of vital importance to forging new relationships in this fractured nation.”
Talaga’s ability to transform the way so many Canadians understand this country is part of her power as a storyteller. But for Indigenous audiences, it is also groundbreaking to see ourselves, our stories, reflected in mainstream media. Talaga doesn’t speak about Indigenous people; she speaks with us. “I always write with community,” she tells me by phone in early October. “It’s not just my voice. It’s many other voices.”
Talaga, now 51, wanted to be a writer from a young age. “I was a bookish kid who didn’t have many friends, so words were my friends,” she says. She grew up in Toronto but spent summers with her mother’s family in Raith, a rural Indigenous community northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont. Her journalism career began at the University of Toronto, where she was the news editor for the student-run paper the Varsity under editor-in-chief Naomi Klein.
In 1995, she joined the Toronto Star as an intern, starting off as a general assignment reporter. She was eager to prove herself, as the only intern in her cohort who hadn’t gone to journalism school and the only Indigenous person in the newsroom. “I was doing crime, mayhem, everything,” she says. Later, she covered a variety of beats—local politics, education, health care—but it wasn’t until she moved to the Queen’s Park bureau in 2009 that she was able to start writing about Indigenous people. “I had a lot more freedom to bring forward stories that I wanted to do.”
In 2011, Talaga travelled to Thunder Bay ahead of the federal election to write about low voter turnout among Indigenous people. There, she met Stan Beardy, then grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, who wanted to talk about the disappearance of 15-year-old Jordan Wabasse instead.
Like six others before him—Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie and Kyle Morrisseau—Wabasse died while attending high school in the city, a basic right unavailable to him in his community of Webequie First Nation, more than 500 km from Thunder Bay. Seven Fallen Feathers, which captured the shocking indifference of police, politicians and media to the deaths of Indigenous children and the anguish of their families, became a critically acclaimed national bestseller upon its release in 2017, winning the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize. The jury wrote, “It is impossible to read this book and come away unchanged.”
Its impact came not only from Talaga’s skill as a reporter, but also from her lived experience. She is Polish-Canadian on her father’s side and Anishinaabe through her mother, whose family comes from the Fort William First Nation, just outside of Thunder Bay. Her great-grandmother “would not allow Anishinaabemowin to be spoken in her home, because at residential school she had been taught that everything Indian was dirty,” Talaga wrote in All Our Relations. The trauma of the schools was passed down through the generations of Talaga’s family. Her mother had three brothers who were taken in the Sixties Scoop. In her 20s, Talaga learned she had a sister, Donna, born when her mother was a teenager and given up for adoption. In writing Seven Fallen Feathers, she has said, “I learned more about myself.”
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Talaga’s smooth, resonant voice becomes filled with emotion when we begin speaking about our missing children. “Two hundred and fifteen graves, bodies of little children,” she says about the discovery at the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia. “Even someone who has no real clue about Indigenous issues can wrap their heads around the wrongness of it.” In recent months, Talaga has made several visits to Tk’emlúps te Secwe’pemc First Nation, speaking with community members and conducting research for her book.
I ask if she feels there has been a significant shift in how Canadians understand Indigenous issues since she began writing about them.
She pauses. “Yes and no,” she says. “At least more people are interested now. More people are asking questions, more people want to know the truth. But it was just two years ago that people were denying there was a genocide happening in this country. I work for a newspaper that had a headline on the editorial page, “No, it’s not genocide,” just after I wrote two books on genocide. After all the reporting and journalism that’s been done, that denial hurts.
MORE: I ran away from the Kamloops residential school. This is where I hid.
“And truthfully,” she continues, her voice rising, “how many times do we have to tell people this is what happened before they start to listen to us and believe us? Is it now, when we’re finding the mass graves of all of our children at all of these different schools? And what about the Indian hospitals, what about the sanitariums? There are lots of places where our people are buried in unmarked graves. Is that what Canada was waiting to hear?
“These things hurt our souls,” Talaga says. “Telling these stories, it’s heavy on you. I’m sure you feel that too, as an Indigenous journalist. It’s personal.”
I tell her I feel jaded about the possibility of substantial change. It feels like we’ve been here before, many times, and Indigenous people have little to show for it. “I’m reluctant to call this a turning point,” I admit.
“I feel the same reluctance as you,” she says. “But you know, I’m always hopeful. I think you’ll find our people are always hopeful, right? We’re always extending an olive branch, we’re always willing to teach others. Because we have no choice. We all have to live together here.”
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Talaga spent a year and three months writing Seven Fallen Feathers, while also working her full-time job as a reporter for the Star. By the time she finished the book, she was exhausted. Her colleagues suggested she apply for the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, awarded annually to a journalist exploring a single topic.
She was selected as the 2017-18 fellow, and chose to focus on Indigenous youth suicide—a topic she’d been thinking about since 2009. Then she got a call inviting her to give the 2018 Massey Lectures, becoming the first Atkinson fellow to be named the Massey lecturer. The resulting book, All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, drew clear and compelling connections between the youth suicide epidemic and the disruptive colonial policies that separated Indigenous peoples from their lands, cultural traditions and families. Like Seven Fallen Feathers, it became a national bestseller.
Talaga left the Star and struck out on her own, reflecting on advice that former senator Murray Sinclair had shared with her. “He’s often said to me, ‘We know what to do. We need to start doing things for ourselves, in our own way.’ And when I look at the media, I think that’s true.”
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But when the Globe and Mail offered her a column, her own community of Indigenous people urged her to accept. “They said, ‘Who is going to tell our stories now? You think they’re going to fill your spot?’” she says.
Indigenous people often say we walk in two worlds, but Talaga embodies that more literally than most. In 2018, she became a columnist at the Globe and also launched Makwa Creative, which produces podcasts, TV shows and documentaries. She’s built a small team of Indigenous collaborators, including former CBC Radio journalist Jolene Banning, whose family also comes from Fort William First Nation. “I feel like I’ve known her forever, because she was the reporter putting our issues into national media,” says Banning.
The first documentary from Makwa Creative, Mashkawi-Manidoo Bimaadiziwin (Spirit to Soar), premiered at Hot Docs in April 2021 and follows Talaga back to Thunder Bay in the wake of a 2016 inquest into the seven deaths. Makwa is developing several projects that celebrate the richness and diversity of Indigenous perspectives. One is Auntie Up!, a podcast hosted by Banning and Kim Wheeler that launched Nov. 1. Talaga describes it as an Indigenous spin on The View, the long-running ABC show featuring an intergenerational panel of female hosts. “It’s like a talk show, but what we want to talk about,” she says. “That could be anything from love and relationships to beading to who has the best recipe for moose stew to what hunting was like last weekend.”
Banning and Talaga hope their projects help Canadians understand Indigenous perspectives more deeply, but they write with their own communities in mind. “I hope it at least seeds our youth with the knowledge that they are beautiful, they are resilient, and that the negative and harmful words said about them are all lies,” says Banning. “And that they are worth it.”
The book project Talaga is about to embark on has been on her mind for several years. “In my very first meeting with [House of Anansi editor] Janie Yoon, I discussed two book ideas with her,” she says. “I talked to her about the students who had died in Thunder Bay, but I also pitched a book about all the missing children at residential schools across Canada. That was actually the first [one] I wanted to write.”
Yoon suggested beginning instead with the story of the seven students. “She felt that would really reach people and open up that groundwork, and would be more urgent,” Talaga recalls. “And I think she was right. There is a time and a place for everything. And now things have come full circle, and I’m writing that first book.”
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Talaga describes the project as “sacred work.” To prepare, she is drawing on her community for strength and support. “It is draining,” she says, “which is why it’s so important to do things in a good way.” In September, she spent two days in ceremony with Elders at the Whitefish River First Nation, near Sudbury, Ont., and in early November she travelled to Thunder Bay for an Elders council organized by Elder Sam Achneepineskum of Marten Falls First Nation, with whom she is very close. “Being in Thunder Bay, being in community, it’s very helpful for me as I write,” she says. “I couldn’t do this work if I didn’t have that.”
Talaga, who is warm and thoughtful in conversation, is guarded about the details of the book. She shares that its scope will encompass the 139 federally funded residential schools, as well as the 1,300 schools run by provinces and religious orders where Indigenous children were sent in Canada. She is also looking to the U.S., where the Indian boarding school system served as a model for Canada’s.
I ask her if the three books are connected, and she pauses to consider the question. “All of my books are connected,” she says. “And they all begin in the same place: with me, in the North.” Talaga is not an observer of these stories; she’s a participant, another intergenerational survivor. Each book is a piece of the history of our loss and survival, what it means to be Indigenous. And Talaga wants to tell as much of that story as she can. “I’m a storyteller,” she says. “And I have many books in me.”
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On a rainy October morning a few weeks after our phone conversation, I attend an event at the Vancouver Writers Festival where Talaga interviews Jesse Wente about his 2021 memoir Unreconciled. Talaga receives a warm reception from the theatre—half-filled to COVID-19 capacity—and manages to hold a lively conversation with Wente, who appears by Zoom on a TV next to her chair.
The event ends with an audience Q&A, and the last question comes from an older man, sitting in the first row, who bluntly asks Wente for his thoughts on “alcoholism in your communities.”
The room, which was a buzzing and joyful space only moments before, turns cold. I am reminded that some people still believe Indigenous people are to blame for their suffering. Talaga and Wente handle the question calmly and professionally, reframing it to focus on addictions that affect all communities and pointing out the links between trauma and addiction. But Wente says this: “In recent times, around residential schools, we say, ‘Every child matters.’ That includes the children who are on the street, who are grown up now. They were once children. And they matter as adults.”
In Seven Fallen Feathers and All Our Relations, Talaga illuminated an uncomfortable truth: the past is never really the past. By drawing connections between residential schools and youth suicide and between chronic underfunding of Indigenous services and the deaths of students in Thunder Bay, she demonstrated that the policies designed long ago to eradicate Indigenous peoples and cultures continue to shape their lives today.
READ: What I told my child about the Kamloops graves to honour the 215
“There are still so many truths to be told in this country,” Talaga tells me. “And we have to have the will of the people all across Canada to want to make things better for all of our children.”
I imagine the future that Talaga is trying to build, one where Indigenous people can tell their own stories, in their own ways. Where their history is known and understood, not ignored or denied. What it would have been like to learn Cree from my grandmother, who never spoke it in front of me. Indigenous people have so much sorrow in common. I want my daughter’s generation, and every one that follows, to share their joy instead. The road to that future must be travelled story by story, truth by truth. Each one is an opportunity for Canadians to recognize the beauty and value of Indigenous survival, and to choose to walk beside us.
As Talaga said, our people are always willing to teach others and extend an olive branch. What other choice do we have?
This article appears in print in the January 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Walking in two worlds.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.