– Tanya Talaga
This book is a chronicle of a series of mysterious deaths, by now far more than just seven, which first began involving teenagers living in the city of Thunder Bay. The seeming heart of the matter trembles with questions of racism, suffered by the children of Canada’s indigenous populations from the descendants of white colonizers and their institutional supremacy. Talaga may have at least attempted to write another hackneyed salve against the common social and historical injustices of the day, but to openly accept this book as only that would ignore something far more sinister at hand. When one follows the details that Talaga lays out, the question is less about what historical forces made these indigenous youth repeatedly succumb to mysterious circumstance, and more about where along the way they started being openly hunted by it.
Throughout Canada’s near-north, various isolated villages still exist as traditional aboriginal lands; which these days usually means some combination of subsistence agriculture, what scant employment or capital development they may or may not possess, and whatever federal government assistance can cover the gaps when the others fail. What more they could hope to gain is limited by what little they already have, as the only contact to the outside world is bottle-necked by the singular route in, such as expensive charter plane services which add to the cost of everything else. Food insecurity is rife, as are issues with power generation and water sanitation. Making matters worse is the lingering legacy of Canada’s “residential school” system, a democidal construct enacted by both the government and private religious organizations to “beat the indian out” of entire generations of young children, forcefully depriving whole populations of the culture that once made life on traditional lands tenable – leaving in its place a dire wake of extreme poverty and chronic mental illness.
These communities are desperate to break free of the chains of history, but to do so means to rely on resources they’ve been expressly denied, namely; advanced education, technical know-how, and entrepreneurial insight. This is no easy task for bands and northern villages whose resources are already so scant that operating an elementary school would exhaust supply, and often does. Once children need education past the eighth grade, they’re forced to leave the only home they’ve ever known. Their destination was Thunder Bay, at the Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. DFC was founded in 02000 by the Nishnabe Educational Council, in an attempt to deal with this exact problem. It seemed like a perverse solution, especially given how fresh the horror of residential schools were in the memory of many, but NNEC’s hope was that if they could manage a boarding school with centralized resources largely by and for their own, they would avoid the pitfalls of the past and provide their children with the necessary tools for the success that indigenous communities so desperately required.
Six months into the school’s first operating year, tragedy struck. Jethro Anderson, a young student from the remote community of Kasabonika Lake, was drowned in the Kaministiquia River in the dead of winter. The death reeled the once-hopeful school and they scrambled to recover. They almost did. Five years later, 02005, Curran Strang of Pikangikum would meet the same fate, washed up on the shore of the Kam. And again in 02007, Reggie Bushie of Poplar Hill, washed up on the shore of the Kam. And again, 02009, Kyle Morriseau of Keewaywin, on the shore of the Kam. And again, 02011, Jordan Wabasse of Webequie, on the shore of the Kam. Yet more have since occurred, and the circumstances regarding their deaths have gone cold.
Talaga’s angle in this subject is largely a human interest story, with each tragedy individually wrought. I was first drawn to it for what I admit may have been a regrettable act of vulture culture. It all seemed so prime to me, the idea of a young person having grown up in the woods, like some acerbically twisted Garden of Eden, only to be suddenly thrown south to the rest of society and all the modern culture it demands. All the necessary elements of a good story were there. How innocently they would get off the plane and excitedly rush for the airport’s Timmie cart, looking upon things so common as timbits and machine-made iced cappuccinos as if they were these rare and delectable treats. They considered the Ontarian industrial backwater of Thunder Bay as “the big city,” an exciting place where seemingly anything could be found. They were utterly unprepared for the change in environment; so much so, the school needed to teach its fifteen-year-old students about things so basic as the walk signal at traffic lights and looking both ways before crossing the street. ... but things aren’t as forgiving as even the already depressed world of CanLit would have it. There are no grand adventures or comedic hi-jinks to follow in real life, and even less liberal hope for innate individualistic strength against the manufactured hardships of mass society. Unmoored, they are simply cast from one type of misery to another, and then they die.
Jethro Anderson’s case is the oldest of its type, and thus has the most definitive conclusions. DFC was still new at the time, all of the students coming in from away, unfamiliar with the city and each other. They also brought with them the emotional baggage from their original homes, and with it came indulgent attempts at self-medication. Jethro’s disappearance was quick and sudden, following a particular night of after-school debauchery at a beachside park along the Kam. The cast of characters for this detective play doesn’t have to reach far, and Talaga’s own investigation points to how the perpetrator of Anderson’s possible manslaughter was also another DFC student. Even the Thunder Bay Police Service’s seeming incompetence as first responders could follow from a type of logic. Boarding students younger than post-secondary are not common within any other part of southern Canada. What legal precedents would they possess to act upon an incident involving a young child, alone in a foreign place with no immediately available family or legal kin? Living independently at a far earlier age than your own age-of-majority laws could reasonably allow? While still somehow being perfectly compliant with all available truancy laws? It was all weird, and definitely a first.
... but by the time of the second and third disappearance, things start going off the rails. Even by the most charitable interpretation of events, Anderson’s case set an unfortunate “drunken indian” stereotype for all other incidents regarding boarding students at DFC, no matter how things turned towards the uncanny. The school put strict rules in place to prevent the same thing from happening again, which the students, by now fearing for their lives, dutifully followed. Yet the incidents not only continued, but began to increase with frequency. Each time it happened, the TBPS was quick to label the deaths “accidental” with “no foul play suspected” mere hours after the recovery of the bodies. Furthermore, some of the drowning victims beggared belief. Many of these students grew up in the woods of northern Ontario, and were themselves very experienced swimmers, with fishing as part of their traditional land’s subsistence agriculture. Why, the victim’s families often asked, would they wait until moving to Thunder Bay to suddenly decide to drown?
Soon, in whatever job it was tasked with, the river made a few mistakes. In 02008, DFC student Darryl Kakekayash was on his way back to his boarding house after seeing a movie with a few friends, no alcohol involved, when he was suddenly assailed by a group of three older white men. After a quick and nonsensical interrogation about the criminal gang the Native Syndicate, he was severely beaten and thrown into the river. Against all odds, he managed to pull himself ashore, and wandered the streets with soaked clothing in the winter cold until eventually finding a bus driver to beg for help. Despite reporting it to the police with the full backing of DFC, nobody was charged for the assault. Darryl’s parents responded by withdrawing him from Thunder Bay, deeming the entire city—and their child’s hope for education—no longer worth the risk. Kakekayash wasn't quite the first who survived a drowning attempt, there were two others in the year previous, but he was the first one who was sober when it happened and could remember everything.
By the time Talaga’s chronicle ends, drownings in the Kaministiquia reached a fever pitch. Beyond 02011, they were no longer simply about teenagers or the DFC, with victims ranging from young toddlers to even older men, whose debit cards were mysteriously still in use hours after the recovery of the bodies. A constant line throughout was the indifference of the police, classifying these deaths all as accidents and “non-criminal”. So legendary was their complete lack of willpower to investigate that entire first nation communities had to resort to flying in whole populations of their remote villages to Thunder Bay at the slightest hint of a possible missing person, just to act as the search parties which the TBPS would not provide. The anger sparked over their reaction to what eventually came to be known as the seven fallen feathers would end up creating multiple inquests and tribunals, most noteworthy of which would be two years after this book’s publication in 02018 by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director. It was a well-researched, but somehow poorly written report, which was at least able to handle the less controversial aspects of the issue. The primary call was giving the provincial coroner’s office more resources to service northern Ontario, instead of requiring the police to prioritize what had to be sent to the main office in the capitol against what shouldn’t. For various reasons, only the least of which being the sudden election of a new provincial government whose prime directive seems to be the deliberate infliction of suffering onto vulnerable peoples, I doubt much will come of it. “Writing a report” is a particularly Canadian way of pretending to do something about a problem, while still doing nothing to solve it.
Amidst all of these rather suspect circumstances are things made all the more strange by their total lack of it. The death of Robyn Harper, as one of the seven fallen feathers of DFC, stands juxtaposed to the rest in how perfectly benign it seems. There is no mystery to how she died. A combination of eyewitness testimony and surveillance footage places her at every point up until her apparent overdose. ... notably on the floor of her boarding house, and not at the bottom of the river. Robyn’s grim, but otherwise straightforward fate, highlights just how unusual the other disappearances are. While there certainly were plenty of underestimations along the way, DFC was well aware of the issues their students would face, especially as time went on and the limitations of their particular schooling system became more apparent. As twisted as it was, there was a kind of normal that might have otherwise existed for the boarders of Thunder Bay, a normal which logically followed from the impoverished realities of northern Ontario and the fallout from the residential school system. Yet at no point within that normal would there be any need or room for death by River Kam.
If it seems grating that I should spend all this effort to spoil what might be the rather obvious dramatic tension of this book, I must assure you I do no such thing. The discrepancies I repeat are ones that Talaga can only flatly state the facts of and move on, almost as the police did. All of it in subtext, impossible to miss, yet required to ignore. I don’t think Talaga is blowing these dogwhistles because she has some hidden agenda; the obvious conclusion is just one that she, legally, cannot state. As a journalist, she can only report on what testimony is given to her and what already exists in the public record. Even if she was going out of her way to bring in voices that were shunned from the limited Canadian mainstream, a reporter she nonetheless remains. She does not represent in this book anyone who wouldn’t openly speak to her about this topic, and theirs is a conspicuous absence. The result can only really be an incomplete look upon events, clearly biased to the stubborn and disbelieving perspectives of jilted families who were begging to speak to anyone out of their unresolved grief. From it, the fatigued conclusions she does reach about the unreconciled injustices of history are the only conclusions one could possibly reach with any degree of verifiable safety, no matter how much the lingering dread remains of “what if it is something much worse?”
By simply saying that it is a systemic problem, one that might be fixed through good policy and capital-R Reconciliation, Talaga may be letting the ones who did this to the fallen feathers off the hook. It’s through this that I cynically account for how popular this book briefly became with the small, insular, majority-white Canadian media mainstream. There are others who are not so kind. Around the same time this book was making the rounds, another Anishinaabe writer—Ryan McMahon—also produced some too-short documentaries on the mysterious deaths and Thunder Bay: documentaries which were definitely heard by many at least once, but understandably not promoted thereafter. His work was more openly accusative, not stopping to record the horribly racist things that supposedly-well-adjusted white people freely gossiped of the DFC students, but also diving into the issues of corruption in Thunder Bay municipal governance using muckraking and other underhanded tactics. His work was better able to capture the institutional rot which the more above-the-line Talaga could only vaguely gesture at. For McMahon, Thunder Bay isn’t a “broken” machine with the deaths of indigenous Canadians as an unfortunate malfunction of complex historical issues, but rather that Thunder Bay is working perfectly as designed: a meat grinder which shamelessly celebrates the attempted genocides of the past. The white supremacy of “old-stock” Thunder Bay is not simply some sociological oversight in the institutional design of an otherwise egalitarian city, but a very real flow of money and power which frames the “criminality” of fly-in students as possible threats to their own well-protected criminal enterprises. (Whether the students even planned to commit crimes or not!) What follows is an aggressive and sophistic form of interracial gang warfare where simply not knowing that you were a member of the notorious Native Syndicate is no excuse for still being a member of the notorious Native Syndicate. Then they cap you and dispose of your body; the police were paid off in advance.
I had completely forgotten I had even read this book. The only reason I’m listing it here on my shelf was because I had my memory so rudely jogged. A 02017 article from The Walrus began making the rounds about the death of Marlan Chookomolin, another fly-in student who was found badly beaten on an isolated trail in the city’s north end before he died in hospital. Fortunately, there was a witness to what happened with Kory Campbell, Marlan’s ex-girlfriend. She came in tears to the family, saying she knew who did it and provided the name of the perpetrator. The Chookomolins filed her statement to the TBPS lead investigator without telling anyone else, but it was dismissed out-of-hand. “People are just talking when they’re drinking,” said the detective. Two days later, Kory herself was found dead. By this point, rumours were already circulating online that there was a serial killer in Thunder Bay targeting First Nations youth, and even more that the police may be somehow in on it. It all came rushing back to me then, though unfortunately re-contextualized from your everyday tract on social justice, into a true crime novel who went to the presses all too soon. Maybe it’s entirely within my own imagination, as if through the amazing powers of confirmation bias, I, the ineffectual moron, might happen upon the unique circumstance which could restore order for both native and white Canada alike—as if that helps! (It doesn’t.)