One year ago, the Anishinaabe investigative journalist and author Tanya Talaga won the RBC Taylor Prize for her 2017 book Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death and Hard Truths in a Northern City. The book, which examines the deaths of seven First Nations youths in Thunder Bay, led to, among other things, a crowded lecture-giving schedule for Talaga that included her delivering the 2018 Massey Lectures, with which she explored the legacy of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples. Talaga spoke to The Globe and Mail recently at her home in Toronto.
I was on the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy last spring when my publisher and editor called me and asked me meet them for dinner. I thought, “What’s this all about?" Had I done something wrong?
When we met, Sarah MacLachlan, the president and publisher of House of Anansi Press, looked at me and told me I was going to be asked to be the Massey Lecturer. I said, “Excuse me? Is there no one else around?”
I didn’t understand why I was being asked to be the Massey Lecturer. I knew that Thomas King had been a Massey Lecturer. I knew that Martin Luther King had been a Massey Lecturer. And Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing and Willy Brandt. I thought they’d gotten me mixed up with somebody else.
One of the things that went through my mind was, “I’m not a 75-year-old guy with 25 degrees.” I’m not a learned person that way. I came from a very different background. I don’t even have an ensuite bathroom. I’m a single mother. I mean, I am sure I am completely different from anyone who had ever done this before.
It’s not really a print journalist’s way to stand in front of a crowd and deliver a lecture. But when I stopped to really think about it, I realized I had to do it. It was an opportunity to send a message.
Seven Fallen Feathers had given me a lot of public-speaking experience. I didn’t have that beforehand, other than being a reporter at Queen’s Park, having that experience of screaming out questions in media scrums. It taught me to be bolder and stronger. I was nerdy in school. My voice would shake when I spoke in front of people. But Queen’s Park drummed that out of me. With the release of Seven Fallen Feathers, I was forced to speak. People wanted to hear about the book. I found myself speaking to a lot of universities across Canada.
From the start, I knew my Massey Lectures had to be about community and the people I know. They had to come from who I am. Many hands helped my writing. Many voices led to the stories. We approached the Massey Lectures in the same way.
One of the conditions I gave the CBC was that the lectures would need to start in Thunder Bay. They weren’t sure. I said, “Yeah, this is where they’re going to start.” I told the CBC I wanted an elder from the appropriate nation in every city we would be in. I also wanted a cultural component, be it music or song. This was going to be a community event – an Indigenous-led event. I’m very proud of how it all worked out.
As for the Taylor Prize for Seven Fallen Feathers, I didn’t think it would win. But winning the prize put the book in the hands of people who wouldn’t ordinarily read it.
With the $30,000 prize, I bought a computer. I wrote Seven Fallen Feathers on a Toronto Star laptop that was eight years old. The capital W didn’t work. It was a total pain. So I bought a new laptop, and I also shared the money with the families of the Indigenous high-school students who died in Thunder Bay.
My Atkinson Fellowship ended in October, which dovetailed perfectly with the last of the Massey Lectures. I was supposed to go back to work, but I took two months off, unpaid. The thing is that I had committed to speaking engagements that I’d put off until after the Massey Lectures. So, I had all these events to do. I didn’t plan my time off very well. I kept going, really. It just continues.
The 2019 RBC Taylor Prize will be awarded in Toronto on March 4; shortlisted authors will read at a brunch at Toronto’s Omni King Edward Hotel on March 3.
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