One year ago I read Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers, in which she remembers the seven Indigenous youths who died far from home while attending Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School here in Thunder Bay. In that heartbreaking and essential work, she links these deaths to a structure of colonialism and white supremacy and an ongoing form of cultural genocide in which the government and the rest of us remain complicit. Now Talaga is back with this year’s CBC Massey Lectures; All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward widens the scope of this discussion to look at the high rate of Indigenous suicides all over the world. Beyond talking just about suicide, though, Talaga wants us to consider how colonialism interferes with Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and how this is ultimately the root cause of the suicides and other issues in Indigenous communities. As its subtitle implies, Talaga is not without hope. This book is an outstretched arm, asking everyone—white settler, Indigenous person, person of colour, etc.—to ask difficult questions of ourselves and our institutions and to create real change so we can save real lives.
I love the chapter titles: “We Were Always Here”, “Big Brother’s Hunger”, “The Third Space”, “'I Breathe for Them'”, and “We Are Not Going Anywhere” (yesssss!). These titles alone communicate the arc of Talaga’s talks: first she grounds herself in the history, then she examines the effects of colonialism, before she discusses what so many people within these communities are doing already to try to improve conditions. Finally, Talaga asserts that there is hope, and there are so many viable possibilities out there to prevent youth suicide. What’s really needed is actual commitment to change rather than empty words and promises. As she quotes Mushkegowuk Grand Council Chief Jonathan Solomon saying, “We don’t need another study or inquiry. Everything has been studied and these studies are just collecting dust on a shelf”. The government is very good at promising change; it is much worse at actually delivering change for the better.
Talaga does in this book what a journalist does best: she amplifies the voices of so many people across time and space from these communities, uniting their stories into a bigger picture. We hear the palpable frustration, anger, and sadness from so many individuals; we hear the strident confidence, hope, and determination from some of those same individuals who are even now fighting for change and for lives. Alongside these often personal tales, Talaga grounds us in the history of Canada, Norway, Brazil, and Australia. The conditions that create suicidal thoughts in these communities came from somewhere, and this is where All Our Relations shines.
Talaga demolishes, directly and forcefully, the idea that traumas inflicted upon Indigenous peoples by settler governments should be located and left in the past. She makes it clear that the physical, biological, and cultural genocides of Indigenous peoples have left a lasting, inter-generational mark on these peoples: “Generations of Indigenous children have grown up largely in communities without access to the basic determinants of health…. Children are not in control of their determinants of health. They are born into them.” I mean, this is not hard to grasp, yet it seems like a lot of people in this country are willing to lay the blame for this on the communities themselves rather than the structures in place that prevent them from having the funding, infrastructure, and independence—the security and sovereignty—to guarantee these determinants themselves.
It’s not just a lack of safe drinking water or inadequate access to healthcare, though, that’s at issue. As the title of the book indicates, this is a spiritual issue as well. Suicide rates among Indigenous people are so high because colonialism has harmed not only their physical wellbeing but also their spiritual and emotional connections to the land, to their histories, and to their cultures. Talaga makes this point throughout each and every lecture. In the first chapter she says, “Indigenous people have been trapped in these identity constructions in part because of their near-complete absence from the written narratives of the colonist nations”, arguing that it’s essential Indigenous voices can tell their stories (in their own language as well as that of the colonizers) to pass on Indigenous knowledge and culture. At the end of the last chapter, she says, “All children … need to know who their ancestors are, who their heroes and villains are; they need to know about their family’s traditions and cultures and the community they are a part of”. I mean, when you put it that way … it’s simple, really. This is what we settlers need to realize: Indigenous people have always only ever been asking for the same dignity and respect that we accord each other, the opportunity to live in their ways, pass on their ways, raise their children in their ways. And we have responded, over these past centuries, with the most intense failure mode of empathy a society can experience.
It’s past time we change that.
I had the privilege of taking my class of adult high school students to a book talk with Talaga ahead of her Massey Lecture here in Thunder Bay tonight. I loved listening to her speak, in response to questions from an interviewer as well as audience questions, about the issues around her books and how they relate to her life, to this land, and to these communities. Her voice as I heard it on stage comes through in these books. Read both of them, and you’ll learn so much history while also understand the vital importance of taking action to change these systems.
Throughout her talk to us today, Talaga emphasized that this is an issue of equity. Talaga asks us to examine who we are and where we come from. She reminds us that this is an important exercise, regardless of our race or background. She reminds us that Indigenous people around the world are looking only for what so many people already have: dignity, respect, the ability to retain their culture and beliefs. These are not difficult things to achieve, if we stop standing in the way. All Our Relations makes a case that shouldn’t need to be made, but Talaga makes it with eloquence and empathy.