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Interview: Indigenous Author Tanya Talaga Talks Righting Legacy Wrongs in Canada

Award-winning journalist and author Tanya Talaga looking at the camera
Audible Canada

Written by: Marriska Fernandes

Tanya Talaga is an acclaimed, award-winning journalist and Indigenous author and, in her latest work, the Audible series Seven Truths, she focuses on her Anishinaabe community’s Seven Grandfather Teachings, reconnecting the past with the present.

With roots in Fort William First Nation in Ontario, Talaga shares her community’s teachings of love, bravery, humility, wisdom, honesty, respect and truth and uses them as a guiding light at a time when there is growing awareness of the systemic erasure of Indigenous cultures across Canada, and worldwide.

In the podcast, Talaga explores how the Anishinaabe see the world and their place in it, and she does so while weaving through first-hand accounts of those who’ve lived through Canada’s harrowing residential school legacy; Elders such as Sam Achneepineskum from Ogoki Post, Marten Falls First Nation, in northwestern Ontario.

The Anishinaabe and Polish-Canadian author uses the podcast as a platform to not only shine a much-needed light on legacy wrongs, but to push for equity, justice and inclusion. The series follows on the heels of her prior work Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City, which tells the heartbreaking story of the disproportionately high number of First Nations youth killed in Thunder Bay, Ont.

June is National Indigenous History Month, and here is what Talaga had to say about the recent discovery of 215 deceased children at a former residential school in Kamloops, BC, what non-Indigenous folks can do to support a better way forward and why these conversations are as important now, as ever.

Illustration of "Seven Truths" Audible series
Audible Canada

The genesis for the podcast

Tanya Talaga: “I’ve been thinking about the seven teachings for awhile. I’ve been thinking about what they mean. And I always wanted to delve more into them. I wanted to examine them through our stories that are happening now and stories that happened in the not-too-distant past.”

How the Seven Grandfather Teachings guide Anishinaabe life

Tanya Talaga: “The seven teachings are love, bravery, humility, wisdom, honesty, respect and truth. You know, when you think about the words, they’re all pretty simple. They’re kind of the words that you hear about and your parents have probably told you, like always live your life respectfully, do with love and all these things. But if you actually stopped to think about it, it’s a pretty good guide for life, right? These are what we call the seven grandfather teachings. So it’s seven sacred teachings and they’re passed down through our Elders to people like me and others in our community. And they’re meant as guideposts to help us lead a good life. So, when you wake up in the morning before you log onto your Zoom, or before you step outside, you think about these teachings — how do I treat people with humility, or with respect, or with love?”


It’s like reclaiming language and it’s like reclaiming our history, and our traditions

How Elder Sam’s stories touched Talaga personally

Tanya Talaga: “So, the amazing thing about Sam is that he’s speaking in Anishinaabemowin [an Ojibwe language], so our language, and it’s a language that I am struggling to learn. I don’t have it because my mom was raised by residential school survivors. And it was seen as, you know, dirty to speak, and she didn’t grow up with her language as a result. And so with me, it’s like reclaiming language and it’s like reclaiming our history, and our traditions and Sam’s voice is throughout each of the podcasts telling us which each teaching is in our language – that’s so cool. And it’s so important that everyone gets to hear Anishinaabemowin, because, as you know, Indigenous languages are sadly on the downturn in this country. And so it’s important to bolster those up, in my view.

And I think that, to me, it’s one of the most special things about the podcast and about hearing him, and his view and his life. The ‘Love’ episode is remarkable, you know, when you think of what he’s been through as the survivor of three Indian residential schools.”


The findings in Kamloops serve to really remind everybody about the fact that this is not Canada’s history in the past

The legacy of residential schools

Tanya Talaga: “The findings in Kamloops serve to really remind everybody about the fact that this is not Canada’s history in the past, something that happened, you know, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, this happened decades ago. And Canada has not confronted this.

Case in point: the fact that the [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] was not given the funding and the mandate to fulfill a volume number four of the TRC, which talks about the children, and where they are and the need for us to find our children. And so when you think about that, I mean, that was released 2015; this has been out there. This is something that Indigenous leaders have been talking about for quite some time, for the recovery of our children and knowing of our children of where they are and how they need to be brought home. And so when you look at the plight of our kids today, you can just look to Thunder Bay, Northern BC, Northern Manitoba, and you still see the children leaving their homes and their language and their family, just to get a high school education.”

Why we can all learn something from these stories

Tanya Talaga: “I hope [people] think about what they can do to make this country a better place. Because we have a long way to go, you know, we have 61 First Nations without clean drinking water in this country. You know, Neskantaga First Nation has for 26 years been under a boil-water advisory. You know, when you see it there, all throughout the news right now, the community, you see everyone asking for clean water. How can this be in Canada, you know, right now, in this day and age? Well, we know how this can be in Canada. In this day and age, we know about racism, and about a lack of equity. And the podcast looks at that, you know, through our eyes and questions everyone that lives in this country to understand and sort of think about how they can live in a different way – in a way that’s accepting.”

How can I change things in my own little tiny way?

How Talaga is hoping to kick-start important conversations

Tanya Talaga: “I hope that people ask themselves these questions: how can I live my life according to these seven teachings? And how can I change things in my own little tiny way, so we can get to a greater place of equity in this country, so all people and all children are treated the same, and the colour of their skin or where they’re from doesn’t matter. And I hope that conversation gets kick-started by people listening to the true history of this country and what’s going on every day.”


What can non-Indigenous folks do to support the righting of legacy wrongs?

Tanya Talaga: “You know, get out there and support things like changing the names of the universities like Ryerson, and understanding that we don’t have to make institutes of higher learning [named after] people who were the architects of genocide. Getting out there and understanding that, getting familiar with the issue and learning more about it. I think it’s important for Canadians to understand, for non-indigenous Canadians to understand, opening your eyes and learning more. There’s so many things that Canadians can do to just really familiarize themselves with the human rights issues that are happening in the country right now.”

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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