Hundreds gathered at Marina Park in Thunder Bay, Ont., for a public witness event August 18 that emphasized the healing power of story, as part of the Canadian Lutheran Anglican Youth (CLAY) gathering.
Against the backdrop of Lake Superior, attendees heard the story of the “seven fallen feathers,” the seven Indigenous teenagers whose bodies were found in Thunder Bay’s McIntyre River system between 2000 and 2011.
Details of these teenagers’ untimely deaths were revealed in journalist Tanya Talaga’s 2017 book, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City.
This year’s CLAY gathering, entitled “Threads,” was themed around the power of story. The public witness event featured several storytellers—including Anglican Bishops Anne Germond (Algoma diocese) and Linda Nicholls (Huron diocese), and Archbishop Gregory Kerr-Wilson (Calgary diocese), along with members of local Indigenous communities—who were stationed around Marina Park. CLAY youth attendees, church leaders and Indigenous elders also participated in the event. As the lead sponsor of the public event, the Anglican Foundation of Canada provided $10,000.
After travelling in groups between different storyteller stations, CLAY attendees gathered and moved in procession to the Gathering Circle, an outdoor pavilion in the park’s Spirit Garden.
Once there, CLAY Elder-in-Residence Esther Diabo performed a smudging ceremony, burning sage to purify the Gathering Circle.
Diabo was followed by local singer-songwriter Shy-Anne Hovorka, who performed a song she wrote in tribute to the teenagers who drowned in the river system.
The song was originally written for a performance with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and accompanied by a full orchestra and 30-person children’s choir, Hovorka said. “But today I have my drum, and it’s going to do all the work.”
Before a hushed audience of more than 800 Anglican and Lutheran youth and their leaders, Hovorka performed “Only the River Knows,” her voice soaring, a capella, over the beat of her hand drum.
In her introduction to the song, Hovorka said she had been inspired to write the lyrics from the perspective of one of the deceased teens. “This song is actually from the perspective of one of the fallen feathers, and how he’s trying to communicate with his mother from afar, and how the river actually carried the soul, as he passed, carried him as he made it to the next world,” she said.
Despite ongoing questions about the circumstances surrounding these deaths, Hovorka said, “I think sometimes what we’re forgetting is that it’s not about what happened. It’s about the loss of these lives…We also need to remember those mothers and fathers that raised these children, and now they don’t have that child at home anymore, and they still mourn them,” said Hovorka.
Standing amidst the crowd were Tom and Dora Morris, whose nephew Jethro Anderson’s body was found in the Kaministiquia River in 2000, and whose life is detailed in Seven Fallen Feathers. The couple was among the storytellers who earlier shared with CLAY youth in the park.
Anderson, who came from Kasabonika Lake First Nation to attend high school in Thunder Bay, was staying with the Morris couple when he went missing. “We were entrusted by the parents to look after him, our nephew, when he went missing…It’s hard as a guardian when you lose somebody that you’ve been entrusted with,” Tom Morris told a circle of CLAY youth.
Anderson’s cause of death, like several of the teens who were found in the river, was deemed “undetermined” by a 2016 inquest, which advocates have suggested indicates flawed handling of the cases by police.
Following Hovorka’s performance, Diabo, who is a high school teacher, read from a reflection she had written to be shared with students after a body was found in the McIntyre River:
“Last night, I was at the McIntyre floodway. There were approximately 200 other people gathered under the cool, crisp, starry night-sky. Candles were lit. There was sobbing, crying, sniffles amongst the people. I could see the shadows of people consoling, holding and comforting each other. A definite night in which there was anguish, sorrow and pain.
“We prayed. We sang. We sang a hymn in the street: ‘We Shall Meet on that Beautiful Shore.’
“As we departed, I looked up to the sky above and said, ‘Miigwetch for life and death.’ Life and death, the greatest mysteries.”