Wednesday, 16 December 2020

Seven Fallen Feathers and Beautiful Scars: Two Books about Indigenous Canadians

 In the last couple of weeks I’ve read two books about Indigenous Canadians.

Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga  (house of Anansi Press, 2017) investigates the deaths of seven Indigenous teenagers in Thunder Bay, Ontario since 2000. All were registered in a local high school established and managed by Indigenous individuals, especially for teenagers whose own reserves were too small and underfunded to support their own high school. The children, as young as 14, boarded with adults in the community and were obliged to obey a curfew, so that if they went missing, the community and the police could quickly mobilize to search for them. The community usually mobilized before the police did and searched much more thoroughly.

Sadly, many of these children, disoriented and feeling isolated from their families, spent their evenings drinking and using drugs.   

Three (I think) of these teenagers died by drowning near a popular drinking spot. In all cases the police concluded it was death by accident, assuming thee children had fallen into the river while drunk. Yet parents could not understand how children brought up near water would drown. And the brother of one drowning victim almost drowned himself, but recovered consciousness and swam to shore.

This makes me wonder if there is not a serial killer on the loose in Thunder Bay, preying on Indigenous teenagers.

Talaga’s accusations of police neglect of these deaths is not without substance. A review of the Thunder Bay Police Force conducted in 2018 found that “TBPS investigators failed on an unacceptably high number of occasions to treat or protect the deceased and his or her family equally and without discrimination because the deceased was Indigenous…Officers repeatedly relied on generalized notions about how Indigenous people likely came to their deaths and acted, or refrained from acting, based on those biases. …[S]ystemic racism exists in TBPS at an institutional level.

Aside from the problem of inadequate (at best) policing, the causes of these tragic deaths are largely systemic. They stem from both the legacy of colonialism, and neglect by the federal agencies that are supposedly charged with the welfare of Indigenous people living on reserves. Schools are underfunded compared to schools funded by the provinces. As a result, as Talaga explains, the children moving to Thunder Bay to complete high school often all ill-prepared.

Also, living conditions on Northern reserves are often abysmal. A disproportionately high percentage of Indigenous peoples suffer from malnutrition, partly because of the high costs of food in northern communities (despite government subsidies) and partly because they have lost their traditional hunting skills. Many reserves do not even have clean drinking water.  Government promises to rectify these problems often remain that; empty promises.

The second book I read was Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home by Tom Wilson (Doubleday Canada, 2017). Wilson is an internationally known, Hamilton-based musician and songwriter. Not being at all conversant with contemporary music, I knew nothing about him and did not even know that he had lived in the block behind me for many years until someone pointed him out to me at our local gym.

Born in 1959, Wilson was raised in poverty in working-class Hamilton by older parents, Bunny and George. George was blinded in World War II and ran a candy and cigarette stand in Hamilton’s main post office for many years. Tom’s parents were absurdly strict, forcing him, for example, to go to bed at 5:00 PM on summer nights when all the other neighbourhood children were out playing. He sometimes visited the Kahnawake Mohawk Reserve near Montreal (the site of the 1990 Oka crisis ), but was told it was because one of his aunts had married a Mohawk man. Gifts such as beaded moccasins occasionally arrived for him when he was a child.

Remarkably, despite his dark coloring and taunts of “Indian, Indian” from his schoolmates; and despite once hearing his mother tell a doctor that she had never given birth, Wilson did not put two and two together until he was in his 50s.  Like many musicians, much of his life was dedicated to sex, drugs, and drinking. Having chatted with him at the gym and having read his book, I have some inkling of how much he suffered during those years. Fortunately, he had married and his love for his children gave him something to hold on to, even when his wife threw him out and he was sleeping in his car in the parking lot of the church just down the block from me.

Tom’s adoptive mother, of Irish and French-Canadian heritage herself, did not want him to know that he was Mohawk. When he occasionally asked about his origins, Bunny said she would take her secret with her to the grave, and she did. I won’t reveal precisely how Tom found out that he is actually Mohawk, but only after Bunny’s death did he discover his actual parentage and his Mohawk roots.

This is such a sad story. Why would a woman who raised a son as late as the 1960s and 70s fear to tell him he was “Indian”?  Did Bunny have racist views about Indigenous people, or did she think she was protecting Tom against racists by not revealing his roots to him. In any event, she denied him the pride that he now has in his Mohawk identity and in the many Mohawk men who worked as “skywalkers” (construction workers in high rise buildings) in New York and elsewhere.

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