Arts and culture

RBC Taylor Prize 2018: Listening to the sound of Seven Fallen Feathers


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Tanya Talaga has been named winner of the 2018 RBC Taylor Prize with her non-fiction book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City.

Noreen Taylor and winner Tanya Talaga receiving Taylor Prize

Tanya Talaga, right, accepts the RBC Taylor Prize from founder Noreen Taylor.

Tanya Talaga's 2018 RBC Taylor Prize-award winning Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City (House of Anansi Press) puts her in rare company: she's probably one of the few people to win the prestigious non-fiction award that wishes she'd never had to write the book in the first place.

“But it was something that I felt I must do for many reasons," the author and Toronto Star reporter said as she accepted the award and $30,000 prize during a luncheon gala in Toronto. “There are seven (reasons) – Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Kyle Morrisseau, Jordan Wabasse, Reggie Bushie – all of you, the seven fallen feathers."

Seven Fallen Feathers is an examination of the struggles of Indigenous people, specifically young people, through the lens of seven lost lives in Thunder Bay, On. The book was spurred by a series of pieces Talaga wrote for the Toronto Star while on assignment in the northern city in 2011.

Talaga had gone to investigate a piece on the federal election and why indigenous people weren't voting, but a meeting with Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of the Anishinaabe Aski nation at the time, tugged her attention to the seven missing kids. Beardy side-stepped her questions, he didn't want to talk about voting, he wanted to talk about Jordan Wabasse.

“I would ask a question and he'd say Jordan has been missing for 70 days," Talaga told attendees. “It wasn't until I put the manic Toronto journalist aside and looked at Stan and opened my ears to what he was saying… who I was and where I was – this was the Grand Chief of 49 First Nations – he was starting to tell me something, so I listened."

The book spun out of those stories is a heart-wrenching work; a book about broken treaties and failed justice, a book about the child welfare system and residential school systems, it's a book about the effects of intergenerational trauma on Canada's Indigenous people. It's Canada laid bare amidst its flaws.

As the jury wrote when Seven Fallen Feathers made the RBC Taylor Prize shortlist: “Talaga has written Canada's J'Accuse, an open letter to the rest of us about the many ways we contribute – through act or inaction – to suicides and damaged existences in Canada's indigenous communities."

Vijay Parmar, president, RBC Phillips, Hager & North Investment Counsel Inc., says: At RBC Wealth Management, we enjoy a long-standing commitment to supporting the arts and artists across all genres.  We recognize that the arts are essential to our lives and our communities – which is true no matter where you go right across this diverse country.

“And we are honored to play a part in drawing attention to these distinguished writers who tell our stories as presenting sponsor of the RBC Taylor Prize for Canadian literary non-fiction.”

RBC-Taylor-Prize-2018-Vijay-Parmar-speech-in-page

Vijay Parmar addresses the audience at the King Edward Hotel, Toronto.

The award-winning author and journalist Talaga shares her thoughts on winning the prestigious RBC Taylor Prize, the role of non-fiction in today's world, and the importance of listening.

Congratulations on the win, you must still be buzzing!

I was really surprised and really humbled. The other authors are so great, the books by Stephen and James and Max and Daniel are beautifully done and all of our voices are so different, I was not expecting this at all.

You spent years reporting on this, why write the book now?

I knew that one day I would end up writing a book about this, but life got in the way. I've got two kids, a busy working single mother, my kids were too young. I needed to be in the right space and time emotionally as well to take a project like this on and really write it. When I was ready I sat down with the Grand Chief of Anishinaabe Aski nation Alvin Fiddler and I said, "I apologize for not writing this book in 2011 but I'm going to write it now," and he said: “you weren't ready to write it then, you weren't meant to. You are now." The whole book came together in a year. It was a crazy deadline, but it was meant to be here for Canada's 150th birthday and House of Anansi's 50th.

Anyone who's driven Northern Ontario or any of Canada knows it's a very big, very diverse country. How do you make a story like this resonate beyond the North?

It's actually kind of easy, it's a story about families who love their children. It's a story about kids, about teenagers and young adults. It's a story about communities and their children – those are universal themes. In Thunder Bay, what's happened to the kids is a microcosm of the whole country. Look at Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine – the number of missing indigenous women and girls… you can see the themes, the problems with justice, the problems of intergenerational trauma and children being taken out of their families and their homes.

You mentioned in your acceptance speech it was only once you started listening that you realized the true story. So much of the discussion in society right now is about identity, and there's so many ways to be heard – it almost makes you wonder if listening is passé.

Our most important stories are non-fiction stories because they're the truth and I think people need to listen to the truth. In this case, there's been a bit of an indifference towards Indigenous people and what's been happening in this country but there's a violence to that indifference. We're seeing that played out now.

Are we starting to listen?

Listening is good. It's the first step.

What about writing another book, are you up to it?

I love it. I always wanted to do this but became a journalist to pay the bills. We're lucky we're able to use our craft to do this.

I spoke with the jurors and they mentioned that the short list shows an almost maturation of the Canadian voice. What're your thoughts, is Canada finding its voice?

It's getting there.

RBC Taylor Prize 2018 Judges

Jury members (left to right): Anne Giardini, James Polk and Christine Elliott.

Can non-fiction help?

I hope so – it's true. To have a national bestseller in this country the numbers are really low, it's shocking but I hope that Canadians appreciate a good story. I think they do. And I hope they appreciate the truth because non-fiction is the truth.

How important is fostering young non-fiction voices? I know you were paired with someone for the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writers Mentorship Program.

Her name is Stephanie Harrington, she's incredible, she lives in Victoria now and writes about an instance in her family. It's beautiful what she's doing… it's hard because it's about herself and her family, what they've experienced (with) her brother's addiction. She's brave and I like what she's written so far. I met all the other emerging writers – four of them – all amazing, young voices the country needs to hear. It's a good program, I'm really glad that RBC has got behind them and everyone is working together. I don't know another program like this in Canada.

RBC Taylor Prize Vijay Parmar Noreen Talor Valerie Chort

Vijay Parmar, Noreen Taylor and Valerie Chort, vice president, Corporate Citizenship at RBC.