Carol Off & Tanya Talaga: Too Many Fallen Feathers

On Indigenous deaths, the Afghan war, and other tragedies Canada enables

In 2002, an Afghan man named Asad Aryubwal denounced a powerful American-backed warlord in an interview with the veteran journalist Carol Off. As a result, he, his wife, Mobina, and their five children were forced to flee Afghanistan. Off spent the better part of a decade helping to get Aryubwal and his family to Canada. Her award-winning book, All We Leave Behind is a story of consequences and responsibility, for those who expose injustice, and for the journalists who tell their stories.

Tanya Talaga negotiated similar questions in the course of reporting on the deaths of seven Indigenous high school students in Thunder Bay, Ontario, between 2000 and 2011. In Seven Fallen Feathers, Talaga, an award-winning investigative journalist, poignantly explores the lives of the seven—Jordan Wabasse, Kyle Morrisseau, Curran Strang, Robyn Harper, Paul Panacheese, Reggie Bushie, and Jethro Anderson—and the story of their northern city.

Talaga and Off spoke in Toronto. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

 

Carol Off: Your book has had a profound effect on me. I’ve had a growing awareness since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—following the testimonies and reading the report—of what went into making this country, what was required, in fact, to take this land. The generations of children taken to residential schools, not one or two but five generations, a hundred and fifty thousand people, young kids. And I think of my own children. Imagine that. My mother has been taken away, and then I’m taken away, and then my kids, and my granddaughters…And it was an extraordinary revelation to then read your book because you focused on one community, one set of stories, one collection of grief. I was overwhelmed.

Tanya Talaga: It’s overwhelming but it’s something we live with every day.

Off: “We” being…?

Talaga: People who are Indigenous. My father was Polish; my mother’s side of the family is Anishinaabe, and I grew up knowing that she was raised by a residential school survivor and, as a result, she didn’t like talking. She was raised to think that everything British and Canadian was excellent and everything Indian was dirty.

Growing up, you think that everybody has the same experiences you do; I thought everybody knew about residential schools. This was, I guess, naive because you don’t learn it in school, really. It was whitewashed in my courses at university, too, the history of what happened here.

When I became a journalist and started working in politics and going up north, I began to learn far more about my family, and that every family has similar experiences. It’s all fallout from the residential school crisis: there are child welfare issues; issues of education; issues of not having a school to go to; of addiction; of abuse. It goes through every family. And that’s the amazing and resilient thing about the families in this book: they carry on. There is something about the collective grief everyone has experienced. It helps, in a way.

Off: The key thing that came out of the residential school study was this crucial word: genocide. Finally, people had the courage to say that it was a policy of genocide. I have travelled the world and done stories in other places where there were genocides, and you can see the hallmarks of it on this story.

Talaga: It’s hard to hear you say that, but it is there, the legacy of this intergenerational trauma. A lot of people roll their eyes; they don’t understand what that is. But you see it in the prison systems, in the fact that more Indigenous people cannot find work because they aren’t graduating from high school—because there are no schools for them to go to.

We still have this problem in this country where we’re sending kids far away from their homes to get educated, alone—not in their first language, again. The same things are almost happening, in a different way. There are more children in care now than ever before. How do we let that happen? There are voices now that are trying to stand up: Cindy Blackstock, Christi Belcourt, people who are saying enough. And I think the Canadian public will get there, but it’s going to be a while.

Off: It has to be taught in schools; it has to start at the ground level.

Talaga: Yes, that has to change. When I walk around the city and see no Indigenous imprint whatsoever, that makes me sad, especially when I travel to places like Guelph or London, Ontario.

Off: Not a street name, not a building.

Talaga: No. It’s a disquieting feeling because you know somebody has been wiped out so another culture can be here. Which is an interesting segue into what you’ve written about. There has been a destruction of a society in Afghanistan, and you’ve witnessed that. Does it make you crazy that it’s not better?

Off: Well, it’s so far from not better. The vice-president of Afghanistan is Abdul Rashid Dostum. He is the warlord who put the death sentence out on the family that I spent all these years trying to get out of trouble.

I interviewed this family; the father [Asad Aryubwal] told me he wanted Canada to understand that we were aiding and enabling the worst parts of the society. That Canada—well, the United States principally, but Canada, too—was financing these warlords in order to get the country under control. We were creating a monster. He wanted to sound a warning, and I wanted to help him sound that warning, give him a voice. And the consequences were not only that it did not change anything and he had to flee for his life for having spoken out, but the man who issued the death sentence is now the vice-president—and is on the payroll, as he has been for decades, of the United States administration.

Donor countries like Canada finance this system. And any discussions that come up about “unfinished business,” as they are now in the U.S., are about re-empowering those same people and defeating the Taliban. The Taliban wouldn’t exist if people didn’t see it as a viable alternative to what they have—and that regime was largely a product of U.S. foreign policy.

Talaga: You talk in the book about the massacre of thousands of Taliban prisoners of war. It’s impossible to say how many actually died.

Off: The massacre of Dasht-i-Leili—that’s the story we had gone to investigate, which started the whole book. There is evidence that the Americans were right there when they turned over these POW’s to Dostum’s people. They were never seen again, but people did see some signs of them: they saw trucks full of blood, corpses being put into a mass grave. And the United States says, “We know nothing about this.”

Talaga: And now he’s the vice-president.

Off: And now he’s the vice-president. In Canada we can have this discussion; we can try to reinvent things and rethink things. But it’s not so for a country that is as broken as Afghanistan is, due to the decades of foreign interference, whether it was the Soviet Union, or the United States, or the British. And Canada is part of this. Canadians thought they were going in for the right reasons—it was the just war. And we left like all the others; we left a failed state. We lost all those soldiers, we lost all that money, and we abandoned the country.

Talaga: You talk to a few soldiers who were pretty open about what they were doing there. I thought that was remarkable. They admitted, “We have to do better.” It’s no wonder—you see the PTSD in the soldiers coming back. What else makes me so angry reading your book is that the U.S. is doing it again in Iraq right now. How do we make this better?

Off: That’s a recurring question, isn’t it? Our books tell very different stories, but what is similar is that we’re both, I think, pretty hard-nosed journalists. We come at journalism from a conventional view: you get the facts, you don’t get involved in your story because you have to be impartial. You can’t take a stand because then you’re not only not being objective, but you’re not being fair. But my journalism put a man’s life in jeopardy. I used a source who was then driven out of his country and into exile. And I had to think, “What are my responsibilities here?” I’ve had to do some soul searching about where these conventions of our profession are ethical and serve the greater good, and where they are ways to hide.

Talaga: I think for years journalists have hidden themselves behind that wall of “I’m getting the story, and then I’m leaving.” But somebody once said to me…actually it was Duncan McCue. He said, “Try not to be a story taker.”

I agree with that. It’s good journalism to make sure that you’re not going in there, taking something, and leaving. When you ask people to give you the most intimate details of something horrible or profound that’s happening to them, you give something back. You call and ask how they are; you stay in contact. In your case, Asad had to make a conscious decision when he met you, to speak out. In some ways it was a luxury that you gave him, that he could stand up and fight. But then he lives with the backlash.

Off: Yes, and Asad is a sophisticated thinker, he’s educated, he’s knowledgeable. He was conscious of the decisions he was making even if I don’t think he saw all the consequences. I wonder, when you are talking to these families in Thunder Bay and they are giving you these intimate details—what are your responsibilities to them? What do you do to make sure you’re not exploiting them?

Talaga: That’s a good question. We decided to share the book before it was published, with the families.

Off: Wow.

Talaga: It was actually my publisher, Sarah McLachlan who brought up the idea. She wanted to go back to the band councils of every single community and the elders from every community, and she wanted them to read the book before we published. I said to Sarah, “That’s a beautiful idea, and I agree, but if we do that, this book will not be published for so long, because that is a lot of people.” So we settled on the families and certain key people. This book was written by many hands. For instance, I sent the chapter to Jordan’s mom, Bernice, and she told me, “There are three mistakes here.” There are other families. One mother read it and she hated it. That family’s story was more complicated…

Off: Which family was that?

Talaga: Jethro Anderson’s. When his mother? Stella and I talked it through, she told me what she wanted changed, and I made those changes. We don’t do that in journalism often—never, in fact. But this time I did. And also with Norma, and with Alvin [Fiddler]. It was this big process of everyone reading it and giving me feedback.

Off: Alvin Fiddler is a kind of a Greek chorus, isn’t he? He’s your touchstone—you keep going back saying, “Am I getting this right?” And you had a series of emotions of your own through this—sorrow, and immense pain, and anger—which you slowly directed where it should be, toward…

Talaga: The police.

Off: And their failure. Not a knee-jerk, “police are always bad,” but you encountered many people who said, “I didn’t go to the police to tell them what I knew because I don’t trust them,” which is so shockingly upsetting. But everything that you were learning confirms why they didn’t—the feeling of fruitlessness, of futility. Why would you put yourself out there? Why would you expose yourself, and be on their radar, if nothing will come of it?

It’s the same breakdown of trust in minority communities in Toronto, with people saying they are being carded. I’ve encountered it in all the corrupt countries I’ve been where you just never get on the radar of police, you never report a crime committed against you or against your neighbours. You never speak of it. This was the place these families had come to, that nobody cared, nobody bothered to find out. And that is a legacy we have known for generations.

Talaga: Yes, you see that breakdown everywhere: in the cases of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls; with Colten Boushie’s death in the West. The story is about Thunder Bay but also Canada. It’s about what Indigenous people have faced throughout this country for decades, forever really.

Off: Since contact.

Talaga: Those historical reasons are why you can’t look at the seven deaths as only deaths in the river. Five of them died in the water, two did not. But you have to look at the whole history of the story. And it’s a story that’s being replayed over and over again. I don’t know what it’s going to take to make it better. One thing, to start, is education. I totally agree that it has to be rewritten, for all of our children. And there have to be schools everywhere that they are needed. It’s ridiculous that in this day and age we do not have that.

Off: And they fight it in court every chance they get.

Talaga: Every single time, the legal bills the government of Canada has are in the billions of dollars. Fighting against treaty rights—it’s remarkable.

Off: Against education rights.

Talaga: Yes, against Cindy Blackstock, who is a remarkable freedom fighter—I think history will judge her to be that. She’s going to court again because she’s trying to get equitable funding for Indigenous kids, and the government has fought her continually and it just does not stop. I don’t understand that Canada. It doesn’t seem to be my Canada, the one I thought I was growing up in.

Off: Your book is a work of journalism. But it’s personal, too, isn’t it?

Talaga: Absolutely. How do you separate from these things? You got close to Asad and his family, to Ruby. For me it’s also difficult because the children died and are still dying in the waters where my mother’s family have lived for thousands of years. I know the place. It’s the land, it’s the water, it’s part of me.

Off: For me this book is deeply personal because I had to get them out of the trouble I put them in. You mentioned Ruby, Asad’s oldest daughter, whom I met as a teenager. That’s really why I got lured into becoming so involved—this young woman who wasn’t allowed to go to school, or have an education, or go outside without her body and face being covered. And she still had such a spark. I was drawn to that spark. And now they’re living here in Canada and she’s going to university, determined to be a human rights lawyer.

Talaga: You paint portraits of women through the book. I’m thinking about the women in the house you stayed at, where you saw a pile of burqas and shoes on the floor. It’s like a secret life these women are leading. And you humanized it, and Ruby humanized it—that story of her in university in Kabul, trying to achieve her dream of being a lawyer, and her professor was bothering her.

And then you as a female journalist—you were a trailblazer, reporting in Afghanistan in those years when there weren’t a lot of female reporters. And you mentioned, too, and I had to laugh at this, that the CBC wouldn’t normally send…

Off: Its policy was not to send women. But things have changed. And it gives you hope when things do change. I can’t imagine that your book won’t affect things. You told the story of one community, you put human faces on it—mothers whose children are gone, and parents who saw their kids pulled out of rivers. How many—how few of us—will ever know what it is to have a child pulled out of a river? And yet one community sees five of them in the story you tell, and seven altogether in mysterious circumstances.

Talaga: And there have been three more.

Off: So ten kids altogether, but seven out of the river?

Talaga: Now it’s eight, sadly.

Off: Out of the rivers…If it was the Don River or the St. Lawrence or any other rivers that I know, this would be monumental.

So I have great hope that just by telling this story as you have, you have made sure no one can look away. Having seen it we cannot not have seen it.