A 376-page investigation into the deaths of seven Indigenous teenagers has won this year's RBC Taylor Prize for excellence in literary non-fiction by a Canadian author.
Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Toronto journalist Tanya Talaga prevailed over four other finalists at a luncheon ceremony in downtown Toronto on Monday to take a prize worth $30,000 all told. In addition to the cash award, Ms. Talaga received a crystal trophy and a leather-bound version of her book.
In its citation of the book (published by House of Anansi Press), the 2018 jury panel of Christine Elliott, Anne Giardini and James Polk noted that Ms. Talaga had written Canada's J'accuse! in regard to suicides and damaged existences in Canada's Indigenous communities. "Ms. Talaga's account of teen lives and deaths in and near Thunder Bay is detailed, balanced and heart-rending," wrote the jury, who read 153 submissions in determining the winning title. "It is impossible to read this book and come away unchanged."
With one exception (James Maskalyk's Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine), the other shortlisted books for this year's prize were examinations of history and past events. In contrast, Ms. Talaga's book is insistently current.
"The history that I'm writing is what we're seeing unfold before our very eyes," Ms. Talaga told The Globe and Mail shortly after receiving the prize. "It's 2018, and we're still taking children away from their families, their cultures and their language, to go to school 500 or 600 kilometres away in Thunder Bay."
The Indigenous teenagers the author wrote about died between 2000 and 2011. Ms. Talaga had finished the book, but it had yet to go to print when the bodies of Tammy Keeash, 17, from North Caribou Lake First Nation and Josiah Begg, 14, from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, were found along the Neebing-McIntyre Floodway in Thunder Bay in May, 2017.
"I thought I was done writing," said Ms. Talaga, a reporter with the Toronto Star. "But I had to add an epilogue."
Ms. Talaga, as recipient of the 2017-2018 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, is currently working on a series of stories. Commenting on the recent acquittals in trials involving the deaths of Indigenous youths (Tina Fontaine in Winnipeg and Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan), the author spoke about this country's treatment of its Indigenous people.
"Canada has had a history of indifference, and of looking away," Ms. Talaga said. "As Canadians, we can't look away any more.
"We're still trying to get a justice system that is fair to everybody and that represents everybody. We're still trying to have clean water in all the Indigenous communities throughout Canada," said Ms. Talaga, whose great-grandmother was a residential school survivor. "There will be no reconciliation in this country without basic human rights."
The other works shortlisted this year were Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on Bering's Great Voyage to Alaska by Stephen R. Bown, Yardwork: A Biography of an Urban Place by Daniel Coleman, In the Name of Humanity by Max Wallace, and Mr. Maskalyk's Life on the Ground Floor.