Building Empathy, Addressing Inequity: A Lecture by Tanya Talaga

By Kelly Husack

Photo Credits: Richard Lautens, Toronto Star

“We were talking two different languages.” 

These were the words that Tanya Talaga, the award-winning author and journalist, used to describe her interview with the former grand chief, Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation as she spoke at the second event hosted by the Indigenous Affairs Student Initiative at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy on January 31, 2019. 

In the interview with the grand chief, he answered her question about Indigenous democratic engagement with a question on what seemed to be an unrelated subject of missing Indigenous youth. Most people would have brushed off his response and moved on. However, she was taken aback by this leader’s message and was moved to action to bring truth to the stories of these youth. In 2017, Tanya Talaga published the book, Seven Fallen FeathersRacism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.

As a journalist, Talaga is moved by story. She began her speech by taking the time to individually introduce seven young people to the audience: Jordan Wabasse, Robyn Harper, Paul Panacheese, Reggie Bushie, Jethro Anderson, Kyle Morrisseau, and Curran Strang. These are the names of the seven high school students that left their home communities to attend high school between the years of 2000 and 2011. All seven of these individuals, ultimately, lost their lives shortly after moving to Thunder Bay, Ontario to attend secondary school. Each one of them represents a source of unrealized dreams, ambition, and potential. 

Reports such as that published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015 have begun to bring to light the history of colonial events that have led to the establishment of Canada as a nation. Over the past couple of years, more and more conversations about reconciliation are taking place in the media, in business, in academia, and beyond. This is important to the process of educating the public on Indigenous history in the Canadian context; however, the reality is that misunderstanding still remains.

Indigenous-settler relations in Canada are complex. These relations are fraught with mistrust and premised on inequitable systems. In many corners of this country, stereotypes and institutional racism underpin the injustices Indigenous people face every day. Simply put, our systems are failing the Indigenous peoples of this country, and the story that Talaga told of these seven students is no exception. These students faced realities that included unequal access to education where they had to travel far distances from their home communities, adjust to new ways of life, and board with unfamiliar people that did not share their values or way of life. When it came time for authorities to investigate the deaths of these students, responses were delayed because of stereotypes of young Indigenous people that underpin our society. The fact is that Indigenous peoples in Canada experience a very different reality from the rest of the population.

But why is this? Why, even with all of the best intentions to reconcile past events are we not better able to address the issues of institutionalized racism? Perhaps, it is because we still speak two different languages. Policy that is rooted in colonial ways of knowing has created the issues we see in Canada today. We must look critically at each of the historical moments that have broken relations in this country and how events and policies such as the Treaties, the Indian Act, the Residential School System, and the Sixties Scoop have led to deep divides between Indigenous peoples, the government, and the rest of Canada. As a starting point for changing this reality, public policies need to build understanding between groups. This will only occur if policy makers seek to know the stories of the people that policy affects. This means developing an understanding beyond consultation, where strong relationships built upon trust are imperative and where every Canadian knows and understands the lives of the Indigenous peoples within this country. 

As I sat and listened to the presentation, I could not help but be reminded of my own relations. I thought about the Indigenous youth that I have worked with over the years. I thought about where they are now and how we all want to find our passion, feel like we belong, and have our dreams realized. I also know that these individuals I have come to know carry similar stories to the seven young people that Seven Fallen Feathers focuses on. I was reminded that evening that we must draw upon the connection that we hold with one another in order to build a more positive path forward and act on the present-day systemic injustices taking place throughout our institutions.

Policy must actively seek to build empathy, as well as address the inequalities present in systems such as child welfare, education, health, and justice. This will be the central challenge for all Indigenous and social policy as we work to build a system that works for all peoples in this country. Documents such as the TRC, will need to guide this work, but we will only come to be able to make effective change through taking the time to learn each other’s stories. After all, our stories and relations are what move us to action, as was the case for Tanya Talaga. 

Kelly Husack is a Y1 Master of Public Policy student at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology with a major in Human Kinetics from the University of Regina. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, she was the executive director for an inner-city community health centre in Regina’s North Central neighbourhood. She is also currently the research assistant for a community-based research study on HIV care in Saskatchewan.