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‘Stan walked in and greeted me warmly, his brown eyes twinkled as he took a seat’

By Tanya Talaga      

Tanya Talaga is shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for her book  Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, published by House of Anansi Press.

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Arthur Street runs east to west in a long, straight ribbon through the downtown area of the Fort William region of Thunder Bay. Arthur Street is devoid of charm—it’s a stretch of drive-thru restaurants, gas bars, and grocery stores, and cars in a hurry to get anywhere but here.

Turn off Arthur, north onto Syndicate, and you’ll find the Victoriaville Centre, a poorly planned shopping mall with a 1970s vibe. The mall is riddled with empty stores and stragglers having a cup of coffee before heading over to the courthouse across the street. Parts of the mall have been taken over by mental health clinics, an art gallery, and an Indigenous health centre. Upstairs is the main administration office of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), a political organization representing forty-nine First Nations communities encompassing two-thirds of the province of Ontario, spanning 543,897.5 square kilometres.

There is one elevator and it behaves like an old man. It grumbles as the door shuts, and it shakes and heaves its way slowly upstairs. A sign posted near the buttons says, “When the elevator breaks down, call this number. . .” “When,” not if.

This was where I found myself one grey day in April 2011. I was there to see Stan Beardy, NAN’s grand chief.

The 2011 federal election was in full swing. The incumbent Conservative candidate, prime minister Stephen Harper, was largely loathed by the Indigenous community. During his five years as prime minister, he had stripped away environmental protections, built pipelines, and continually underfunded the 634 First Nations across Canada. Harper was duking it out with Jack Layton, a former Toronto city councillor and leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party. Layton was a guitar-playing socialist whose mandate was to tear down highways and build bike lanes and parks.

The receptionist ushered me into a large common meeting room to wait for Stan. Everything in the room was grey —the walls, the tubular plastic tables, the carpets. The only splash of colour was a white flag with a red oval in the middle. Inside the oval—a traditional symbol of life for Indigenous people—is the Great White Bear. The red background is symbolic of the Red Man. The bear is stretched out, arms and legs open wide. His feet are planted firmly on a line, which represents the Earth, while his head touches another line, which is symbolic of his relationship to the Great Spirit in the sky. The circles forming the bear’s rib cage are the communities, and the lines of the rib cage are Indigenous songs and legends, cultures and traditions that bind all the clans together.

Stan walked in and greeted me warmly. His brown eyes twinkled as he took a seat.

Stan is a quiet, pensive man. He said nothing as he wearily leaned back in his chair and waited for me to explain why exactly I had flown 920 kilometres north from Toronto to talk about the federal election.

I launched into an explanation of what I was writing about, trying not to sound like an interloper into his world, someone who kind of belongs here and kind of doesn’t. This is the curse of my mixed blood: I’m the daughter of an Eastern European and Ojibwe mother who was raised in the bush about one hour’s drive west of Thunder Bay, and a Polish father from Winnipeg.

I rattled off abysmal voting-pattern statistics among First Nations across Canada, while pointing out that in many ridings Indigenous people could act as a swing vote, hence influencing the trajectory of the election.

Stan stared at me impassively.

I started firing off some questions, but every time I tried to engage him, he talked about the disappearance of a fifteen-year-old Indigenous boy named Jordan Wabasse.

It was a frustrating exchange. We were speaking two different languages.

“Indigenous voters could influence fifty seats across the country if they got out and voted, but they don’t,” I said. “Why?”

“Why aren’t you writing a story on Jordan Wabasse?” Stan replied.

“Stephen Harper has been no friend to Indigenous people, and if everyone voted they could swing the course of this election,” I countered.

“Jordan has been gone for seventy-one days now,” he said.

I tried to ask about Layton. Surely the policies of the left-leaning New Democratic Party would be more focused on Indigenous issues, I pressed.

But to this, Stan said, “They found a shoe down by the water. Police think it might have been Jordan’s.”

This standoff went on for a good fifteen minutes before I gave up and we sat in silence. I was annoyed. I knew a missing Grade 9 Indigenous student in Thunder Bay would not make news in urban Toronto.

Then I remembered my manners and where I was. I was sitting with the elected grand chief of 45,000 people, and he was clearly trying to tell me something.

“Jordan is the seventh student to go missing or die while at school,” Stan said. Since 2000, Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Reggie Bushie, and Kyle Morrisseau had died. Now Jordan Wabasse was missing.

***

Stan told me the seven students were from communities and families hundreds of kilometres away in the remote regions of Northern Ontario, where there are very few high schools. All of them were forced to leave their reserves to pursue their education.

“Going to high school is the right of every Canadian child,” Stan said. But these children have been treated differently, their needs forgotten in a country that prides itself on having one of the best education systems in the world.

He looked at me. “Let me take you on a drive.”

We left the NAN office and climbed into his beat-up old pickup truck. He popped a CD of gospel music into the player. Listening to gospel music soothed Stan’s soul. He felt closer to his son when he thought about God.

Daniel Beardy was 19 years old when he was found beaten and unconscious at a house party on Fort William First Nation. He was just finishing up at Dennis Franklin Cromarty (DFC) High School in Thunder Bay, the school for Indigenous students run by the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC). Most of the kids who attend Dennis Franklin come from reserves several hundred kilometres away from Thunder Bay. The students have to live in boarding houses and the boarding parents are paid by the school to look after the kids. Six of the seven students in this book went to DFC.

The Beardys are from Muskrat Dam First Nation, an isolated community of about three hundred people, deep in Ontario’s north, accessible only by air. But because Stan, Daniel’s father, was the grand chief, he had to move to Thunder Bay. His wife, Nellie, joined him and so did Daniel, who lived with his parents while he was attending high school.

Daniel was Stan and Nellie’s only son, their pride and joy, a gregarious teen who loved life, his friends, and hockey. The Beardys’ son fell in love with the game when he was five years old and later ranked second as a goalie in the Ontario Junior A League. The move to Thunder Bay meant he could play for more professional teams that were once home to NHL greats like the Staal brothers, Patrick Sharp, and goalie Matt Murray.

Daniel’s NHL dream was beaten out of him on a late July night. After spending thirty hours in intensive care, he succumbed to his wounds on August 1, 2004.

Stan cannot let Daniel go. And he would not let the seven go. When Stan talked about losing his son, the pain of the lost seven was closely tied to him. The loss of Daniel and the loss of the seven represented the loss of hope, the failure of one generation to take care of the next. Their disappearances and deaths signified everything wrong in the relationship between Canada and the Indigenous people.

Stan was telling me that Jordan, the boy who was missing, was a goaltender like Daniel, when he stopped the car.

I looked around and saw the James Street swing bridge that crossed the Kaministiquia River. He parked near the shore, behind a couple of buildings that looked like they were abandoned.

“What are we doing here?” I asked as I stepped out of the truck.

A feeling of dread rose within me.

Before us was the Kam’s just-thawing, rushing brown water. On the other side of its swollen spring banks loomed Animikii-wajiw, Ojibwe for Thunder Mountain, or what the colonials call Mount McKay, a tourist destination that offers a panoramic view of the city and of the sleeping Nanabijou. Animikii-wajiw, towering three hundred metres over the city, is not just a scenic outlook. It is the spiritual centre for the Ojibwe of Fort William First Nation.

My heart beat fast. Sickness brewed in the pit of my stomach. I knew this place well. This was my grandmother’s reserve, where my children have run through the long grass under the glare of the summer sun and have been chastised by patrolling rez police officers for trying to climb the crumbling shale rocks on the side of the mountain.

Stan nodded and then said, “We think Jordan was chased into the river.”

Searchers found one of his running shoes right here. Indigenous hunters, experts in tracking animals through the bush, found footprints leading up to the water. It looked like there had been a chase.

The bodies of four boys had already been discovered in the waters and floodways that feed into Lake Superior.

One month later, Jordan would be the fifth.

Tanya Talaga has been a journalist at the Toronto Star for 20 years. She won the RBC Taylor Prize and was a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Nonfiction for Seven Fallen Feathers. She has been nominated five times for the Michener Award in public service journalism and has twice won a National Newspaper Award for her work as part of a team. Tanya Talaga is the 2017-2018 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy. She lives in Toronto. Excerpted and adapted from Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City copyright © 2017 by Tanya Talaga. Reproduced by permission of House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without written permission from the publisher. www.houseofanansi.com  The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize winner will be announced at the Politics & the Pen gala in Ottawa on May 9. www.writerstrust.com

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