‘This is the truth.’ Colonial oppression of Indigenous communities focus of former Star reporter Tanya Talaga’s debut film

In “Spirit to Soar” — which premieres at the Hot Docs Film Festival, showing until May 9 — former Toronto Star reporter Tanya Talaga embraces her own Indigenous heritage as well as larger issues around racism and Indigenous communities’ place within Canada.

In 2017, Talaga wrote “Seven Fallen Feathers,” which chronicled the deaths of seven Indigenous youth in Thunder Bay from 2000 to 2011 — five of them found in rivers in the region — and the abysmal record of the Thunder Bay Police Service in providing answers to a troubled community.

A coroner’s inquest was called — albeit reluctantly — into the death of Reggie Bushie in 2008. But it wasn’t until 2015 — with six other deaths included — that it was actually convened.

“I’m always hopeful that change is going to come and that change is happening. I would say that change is happening from the point of view that people are talking,” said Talaga, a first-time filmmaker.

Since the book’s release, she noted, national media and ordinary Canadians have turned their attention to Thunder Bay “and that in itself is an awakening and it’s important. Is there other change needed? Of course,” Talaga said.

The film explores many elements of the story, including an ongoing practice that requires Indigenous youth to leave homes and families on remote reserves to attend high school.

“Imagine that, being 13, 14, 15, by yourself going 500 or 600 kilometres away just to go to high school in Thunder Bay, living with a boarding family. Your first language isn’t necessarily English. You come from a community where there are no traffic lights, no malls, no restaurants so this is all new,” Talaga said.

The film also notes a 2018 report on the Thunder Bay Police Service by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director that offered a scathing assessment of their response of the deaths of the young people, including shoddy investigations and systemic racism within the force.

Poplar Hill First Nation student Reggie Bushie, as shown in this still image provided by documentary "Spirit to Soar," was in Grade 9 when he disappeared in Thunder Bay in fall, 2007.

Beyond that though the film also strives to put a human face on the crisis. In one memorable scene, the community of Poplar Hill First Nation gathers for a long overdue memorial to Reggie Bushie as the camera focuses on the sombre faces of individuals.

“People should see the faces, Canada should see the faces. This is life and this is what colonization has done. This is the truth and what it feels like to be part of these communities and to experience the losses of these seven children and more. This is something everyone is living with in the North and it’s not easy. I wanted to convey that and show everyone the faces of our people,” Talaga said.

The film also delves into Talaga’s own exploration of her heritage — her father is Polish, her mother Ojibwe — including the realization in her 20s that she had a sister who was adopted away from the family and that her mother had three brothers, all of them deceased.

Since the book, Talaga created her own production company, Makwa Creative, to “amplify Indigenous voices … to have a place where we could have our storytellers and tell our stories in many different ways.” For the film, she teamed up with Indigenous filmmaker Michelle Derosier, a long-time Thunder Bay resident who’s film, “The Grandfather Drum,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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“(Derosier) is an amazing storyteller and artist. That’s when the film really took form and shape,” Talaga recalled.

Despite the many injustices Indigenous communities continue to face, the film seeks to sound a hopeful note as it comes to a close, highlighting a musical gathering called Wake the Giant that featured an emerging generation of Indigenous young people.

“I wanted to make sure we ended this film on a hopeful note and to show our belonging. This is the world through our eyes. Our kids are brave and amazing. That’s hopeful,” she said.

TORONTO STAR