Vivid attention to detail brings stories to life
To list Tanya Talaga’s achievements in journalism and activism would take much longer than to explain this person’s drive to force people to pay attention to difficult truths.
Debbie Krause is our public library’s program and outreach coordinator, and as such the coordinator of the library’s Wine & Words series. Of Talaga’s presentation on Wednesday night at the Hare Wine Co. on Niagara Stone Road, she says, “She had the audience, and she really told a story.” The event was sold out: 100 rapt attendees were silently riveted to the dynamic, intelligent and compelling speaker and her very difficult — and necessary — stories.
To the library’s credit, Talaga spoke about other writers telling her she should snag this great Wine & Words gig, where authors get to present in wineries, stay overnight
in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and
be treated with respect and generosity.
Talaga is an Indigenous person, a journalist, a mother, an activist, and a relentless fighter. She tells of her experience as a political reporter for the Toronto Star, learning how to “yell at the Premier for a living” in media scrums — and of how useful that skill became to her as her career swung toward a focus on the stories of the abuse and neglect of people of her culture and heritage.
In 2011 Talaga used that heritage to back a pitch to her editor: It was the time of the federal election between Stephen Harper and Jack Layton, and the basis of her story idea was, “Why is it First Nations people don’t vote in elections?” Her editor supported the pitch — “What an exotic idea” — and Talaga was off to Thunder Bay for research.
She found herself sitting opposite Grand Chief Stan Beardy. “I always start with some big overarching questions to make people comfortable,” she says. “I asked him why he thought Indigenous people didn’t vote in elections.”
Beardy’s response was incongruous: “Why aren’t you doing a story on Jordan Wabasse, who has been missing for 70 days?”
Talaga recounts this went on for several minutes: She would ask Beardy about voting practises, and he would reply with details about the Indigenous high school student’s disappearance. “After 15 minutes I told myself I’d better get a grip. I was sitting with the Grand Chief and he was trying to tell me something,” she says. “I needed to listen.”
Beardy told her Wabasse was the seventh student to die or go missing in the community. “I felt a lot of things: Shame that I didn’t even know the story. Anger: Why was no one researching the story; where was the national inquiry, the national media, the police?”
Beardy took her on a drive in his truck, playing gospel music. “I asked ‘What’s up with the music?’ Stan said, ‘When I hear songs about God I feel closer to my son Daniel.’” Beardy proceeded to tell her about his teenaged son who had been beaten “within an inch of his life,” and subsequently died. The family had moved from traditional territory to Thunder Bay so Daniel could attend high school.
This is a common theme in Talaga’s stories, and in Indigenous life. There are no high schools on reserves or traditional lands. Youth as young as 13 years old are forced to leave their home, parents, family, culture, and language to go to a bigger city. They will typically board with strangers, be given brochures about how to use traffic lights to cross major intersections, and attend a specifically designated high school.
In Thunder Bay that institution is Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. Six of the seven dead or missing students attended there. Beardy delivered Talaga to the school and presented her to the principal, saying, “This is Tanya, she’s Anish. Tell her everything.”
“Six hours later I had found the story that would change the course of my career,” says Talaga, who called her editor and reported the change of plans. “They ran it on the front page,” she says, celebrating the support she had from her editor and newspaper.
“I wrote little stories, and big stories. But I knew I had a bigger story to tell, bigger than news articles.” Talaga knew she had a book on her hands, but — as a full-time-employed single parent of two — had to wait until her kids were a little more independent.
Three years later she followed up with Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who directed her to start her book with the story of Chanie Wenjack — an Indigenous boy who died of exposure trying to escape a residential school. Talaga tracked down Wenjack’s sister Pearl.
The journalist was one of the first people to give Chanie Wenjack a voice. She describes Pearl and her brother’s last time together. detailing a chilling scene between the two siblings that contained a premonition of Chanie’s brief future.
Talaga describes scenes and people with a storyteller’s vivid attention to detail, bringing everything to life.
She proceeds to tell the stories of all seven students, in such a way it seems she spent lifetimes studying and enjoying them before their tragic ends. She lovingly describes a “full wattage smile,” and specifically describes the handwriting of one of the victims. They spring to life and become real — and haunting — in her voice and telling.
The sad tales and their bitter, unsatisfying aftermaths are hard to hear; it would have been even harder to have to have researched each one in such depth.
Local Kim Manley Ort was in the audience at the winery; she had purchased tickets because she had been following Talaga’s CBC Massey Lectures titled All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward. The series explored the issues surrounding Indigenous youth suicide in Canada and internationally. Ort came away from the night with several thoughts. “Education and awareness [around Indigenous issues] are key and have been lacking in our schools and society,” she says. “Assimilation and removal of children from families devastate families and culture,” she continues. “There has to be some way to educate these kids while leaving their families intact. First Nations people and especially the kids have not been treated as equals in this country. This is an important issue for me in the upcoming election.”
Ort says when Talaga was asked what people could do, “she said to tell others about it and to call out racism when you see it. I can do that.”
Local Terry Mactaggart says she was curious to attend the event for a number of reasons, including the fact her daughter has a master’s degree in Native Canadian women writers. “It’s so frustrating because we’ve been looking at this issue for so long and nothing has been done,” she says, regarding removing Indigenous youth from their environment for education — which began with the Indian Act in 1867 and continues to this day.
Mactaggart says, “We are refugees in Canada; the Natives belong here.”
Talaga is asked during a Q&A session whether she has hope, and she says she does. She also says it’s important we all call people around us on their subtle — or not-so — forms of racism. “Educate the people in your circle.”
For their part library staff plan to continue their Moccasin Talk series regarding Indigenous issues, and also feature a permanent FMNI First Nations, Métis, and Inuit collection throughout their stacks.