Tanya Talaga wins $30,000 RBC Taylor Prize for non-fiction writing

Toronto journalist Tanya Talaga won the $30,000 RBC Taylor Prize on Monday and dedicated her speech to the subjects of the book she wishes she “did not have to write” — seven Indigenous youth who died under suspicious circumstances while attending high school in Thunder Bay, Ont., from 2000 to 2011.

“Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City” (House of Anansi) delves into the history of Indigenous students being forced to leave their remote communities in northern Ontario so they can get an education hundreds of kilometres away in a foreign city.

“I am probably one of the only people to win this beautiful award to say that I wish I did not have to write this book, but I did. I had to,” Talaga said in her acceptance speech for the non-fiction prize.

“It was something that I felt I must do, for many reasons. But those reasons I am going to tell you right now, there are seven of them: Jethro Anderson, Curran Strang, Paul Panacheese, Robyn Harper, Kyle Morrisseau, Jordan Wabasse, Reggie Bushie. All of you, the seven fallen feathers.”

“Seven Fallen Feathers” was also a finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction.

RBC Taylor Prize jury members called it “detailed, balanced and heart-rending.”

“Talaga describes gaps in the system large enough for beloved children and adults to fall through, endemic indifference, casual racism and a persistent lack of resources. It is impossible to read this book and come away unchanged.”

Established in 1998, the RBC Taylor Prize is named after the late Canadian essayist Charles Taylor.

Talaga beat out four other finalists for the prize, including James Maskalyk for “Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine” (Doubleday Canada) and Max Wallace for “In the Name of Humanity” (Allen Lane Canada). The other finalists were Daniel Coleman for “Yardwork: A Biography of an Urban Place” (Wolsak and Wynn), and Stephen R. Bown for “Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on Bering’s Great Voyage to Alaska” (Douglas & McIntyre). They each receive $5,000.

Talaga, a Toronto Star investigative journalist who is of Polish and Indigenous descent, said her book is centred around Thunder Bay but is a broader story about Canada and broken treaties.

“This is 2018 and we are still fighting for the right to get an education for all of our kids,” said Talaga, whose great-grandmother, Liz Gauthier, was a residential school survivor.

“We still move our kids from northern First Nations communities into the cities away from their language, their families and their homes just so they can get a high school education, which is the right of every other child in this country.”

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