Tanya Talaga sees the ghost of Canada’s residential school system in the education of Indigenous youths from northern Ontario.

Photo by Andrea Marie Tan
Photo by Andrea Marie Tan

During a guest lecture at UBCO, Anishinaabe author Tanya Talaga revealed the harsh reality facing today’s Indigenous youth. Living hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest high schools, many of these kids are forced to fly into Thunder Bay just to receive a basic education.

In her 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers, Talaga tells the stories of seven Indigenous youths who died in Thunder Bay between 2000 and 2011 after being sent to the city to complete high school. For Talaga, the current system in place for educating Indigenous youths from remote Ontario communities still holds remnants from Canada’s residential school system.

“When kids come to Thunder Bay, it’s a complete culture shock,” Talaga said. “They are leaving communities that are anywhere from four hundred people to a thousand people, max, and they’re coming into Thunder Bay, a place that has malls, restaurants, traffic lights, public buses, and cabs. In their communities, there are no traffic lights, there are no restaurants.”

To receive a secondary education, the right of every child in Canada, kids from remote Indigenous communities have to leave behind everything they know—their families, communities, and language—and live with a boarding family, all at the age of thirteen. This was the case for the seven students who eventually died in or around Thunder Bay within that eleven year span.

Tanya Talaga - Photo by Andrea Marie Tan
Tanya Talaga - Photo by Andrea Marie Tan

According to Talaga, what makes matters worse is the systemic racism that prioritizes the lives of white children and ignores the cases of missing Indigenous people.

“How come this wasn’t being broadcast all over the national news networks?” Talaga asked. “Where were the evening stories, where were the stories on our national newspapers? I wasn’t seeing anything like that.”

When fifteen-year-old Jethro Anderson went missing, it took Thunder Bay police six days to file a missing person’s report. And it wasn’t until 9 years later that Paul Panacheese’s mother was told the cause of her son’s death.

It is this overt racism and indifference to the lives of Indigenous people that has convinced Talaga of the link between Canada’s education system today and the residential school system of the past. Talaga compares the deaths of these seven kids to that of Chanie Wenjack, the twelve-year-old boy who died of exposure after running away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential school in 1966.

“There was an inquest held into Chanie’s death,” Talaga said. “And one of the questions [the jury] asked was ‘why are we still doing this? Why is it, in the late 1960s, we’re taking children away from their families, their language, their homes, and their community, every single thing they know, taking them away to give them an education?’ Well fast forward to 2019. We’re still doing the same thing.”

Moving forward, Talaga recognized the need for more high schools in these remote communities. She also recognized the need for more Indigenous education among settler populations in Canada. Quoting Murray Sinclair, Talaga said, “Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out.”