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In Spirit to Soar we see Anishinaabe author and journalist and podcaster, Tanya Talaga, return to Thunder Bay after an inquest into the deaths of the seven Indigenous children in her acclaimed book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City. Her personal story of reconnecting with her ancestral home is intertwined into the narrative as audiences get to see the parallels of how colonialism and racism affect Indigenous people everywhere: in cities, First Nations, and settler communities. MUSKRAT Magazine’s Erica Commanda got to chat with Tanya Talaga about Spirit to Soar and what it was like to include her personal journey into the film.

EC: The cinematography shown of the Northern Ontario region in Spirit to Soar was stunning. What was it like filming in your home region for you?

TT: That’s one of the things about the film – Julian Falconer said it up in the plane when he was flying around, “that it’s so beautiful. It’s got to be one of the most beautiful parts of the planet and also has one of the ugliest forms of racism anywhere on the planet.”

That was so important to both myself and my co-director Michelle Derosier; to show people what we see when we see our land. We see this immense beauty. The beauty of the trees, the forest, the air, the sky, the rivers, and Gitchi Gami [Lake Superior]. To us we really wanted to make sure that we had represented the water and the land as characters because they’re real. They are a part of us. That’s what we were trying to convey in the film.

A canoe on a lake
Every year, Nishnawbe Aski Nation staff and leaders, along with teachers from the two First Nations high schools in Thunder Bay, take the students out hunting so they can connect with the land, remember their language, customs and who they are. This practice started after the inquest into the deaths of seven students. Author Tanya Talaga hunts with them, as they all return to where her mother’s family is from. | Image credit: Sean Stiller

EC: I liked how your personal story was intertwined alongside the story of the Seven Falling Feathers. It shows how colonialism and racism transcend every level of Indigeneity whether you’re a journalist from the big city or from a small community. What inspired you to make that creative decision?

TT: To be honest with you, I found that kind of hard. It’s hard as a journalist writing about yourself and I’m a writer. Filming about yourself is even worse because it’s visual. It’s even harder. It was difficult to do that. Michelle was incredible talking to me about this, and so was our film editor who I worked incredibly close with: Eui Yong Zong. It’s amazing we spent so much time talking about that particular part of the film. When [this film] was first commissioned, it was commissioned as a POV- Point of View- for the CBC. I actually had to put part of myself in it, but that’s ok because we are part of the story. What’s happened to our families, what continues to happen to our families, that’s a shared experience. It was important to show how colonialism has impacted my family and continues to, and the threads that are sewn with other First Nations families. Many of us have similar experiences where we have been disconnected with the land where we’re from. We don’t live in our home communities. How many of us live in cities?

EC: It’s been three years since the report done by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director came out on racism in the Thunder Bay Police Department. Have you seen much change since?

TT: We’re coming onto three years for the OIPRD Report. Have things changed a lot in Thunder Bay? No. Murray Sinclair said it so succinctly when I asked him in the film if he had any faith in the new investigations into the deaths of nine First Nations people that were re-opened after the OIPRD looked into systemic racism in the Thunder Bay Police force. He said no. The sad reality is that there is still a long way to go in Thunder Bay. I wish I could tell you that everything was different and everything better, but I can’t say that. There are people working for change. There are people who want change to happen. Our people are there working so hard and with so much faith, but it is so hard.

EC: Anti-Indigenous racism is rampant in Thunder Bay. In Tasha Hubbard’s nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up, she delves into why there is so much hate and fear towards the Indigenous population in the Battleford area by telling the story of the “Hangings of Battleford.” Is there a similar historic event/story in Thunder Bay?

TT: Nothing as drastic as that. The hangings of all of those people in North Battleford was just such a defining moment after the starvation on the prairies. It was just such a cruel act. In Thunder Bay we’ve seen colonialism, we’ve seen many cruel acts as well, but it’s many upon many. It’s a bit different. I would say that probably the moving in of the railroad and the start of the St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School (that was right in Thunder Bay) could be seen as a marker, but sadly that was over a span of decades- what happened there. You can really see that effect on the people, the realities of residential school, and what happened in Thunder Bay and what continues to happen to our people there.

EC: What does the title Spirit to Soar mean to you?

TT: It means to me, finding that strength inside yourself and I see that with our youth. I just finished doing a podcast on the Seven Truths, the Seven Sacred Teachings, the Grandfather Teachings, and bravery when it comes to youth and I think of that a lot. I think of our youth, and of how strong and incredible they are. How every day they get up and they walk around in a city that necessarily doesn’t want them to be there. They go and they are achieving their dreams, achieving an education, to me that is Spirit to Soar. The spirit inside of you, that resilience, and beauty. I see it in our youth. I want them to see it and be proud of that too.

You can view the film at Hot Docs International Film Festival online from April 29 – May 9: 

People performing on a stage
First Nations students from Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School in Thunder Bay sing with the band July Talk at the Wake the Giant concert, held down by the city’s water front. The concert attracted rock bands from across Canada, who came together to welcome the students back to Thunder Bay. Most of the students come to Thunder Bay to go to high school because there are no high schools in their communities 500 or 600 km away. | Image credit : Sean Stiller
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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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