Warning: The following story contains distressing details of physical, psychological and sexual abuse at residential schools. Yukoners can schedule rapid access counselling at 1-867-456-3838. The national Indian Residential School Crisis Line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
Yukon resident Roy Johnson feels he has been the victim of a crime. Some of that crime – his enrolment is residential school between the mid 1950s and the late 1960s – has been publicly acknowledged. Another part has not: Lost months between when Johnson says he was first sent to the Choutla Residential School underage and when he was actually enrolled as a student.
Johnson, a Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizen, was born in October 1951. He grew up near Dawson City, but was sent away from home to the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton as a young child because he caught tuberculosis. The disease was spreading rapidly in the Klondike at the time. Johnson said he was about two years old when he was sent away.
En route back home from the hospital, Johnson says he recalls being picked up by who he believes was the Choutla School’s principal at the airport in Whitehorse and taken to the school in Carcross.
He thinks he was kept in Carcross at such a young age because the tuberculosis that had sent him to the hospital in Edmonton was still circulating in Dawson. He recalls the man who took him to Carcross wore a white collar that might have been a priest’s.
Johnson says this was sometime in 1955. He thinks it was the winter of that year because he remembers it was getting dark as he got off the plane from Edmonton to Whitehorse. Johnson says he stayed at the school without going home during the summer of 1956 and then was actually enrolled as a student in January 1957.
The date Johnson first arrived at the school has been a point of contention between him and the government.
The date of arrival is important because it affects Johnson’s Common Experience Payment – a lump-sum payment provided to all residential school survivors following a country-wide class-action lawsuit in 2005. Survivors are entitled to additional money per year spent at residential school.
The federal government has refused to compensate Johnson for his time spent at school prior to 1957, when he was officially enrolled as a student. He has appealed the decision and written letters to various governments fighting it, to no avail.
A decade of abuse and ‘psychological games’
Johnson describes how upon first arriving to the school he didn’t actually attend classes but was often left to play in the corner of the classroom. He said he first slept in the girls’ dormitory, looked after by his sister Audrey, who is five years older. Later, he was moved to the boys’ dormitory to stay with his brothers Frank and Ronald.
Johnson would stay in the Choutla School until 1964 and then attend school in Whitehorse until 1968.
Johnson describes a range of abuse suffered while at the school. He recounts vicious punishment he received from school staff and witnessed other students receiving. These included beatings with straps and students being made to stand on benches anytime they weren’t in class, sometimes for months at a time.
He said boys’ names would be listed off at the start of the summer break and told they would be punished on their return to the school, which Johnson described as a “psychological game.”
Johnson said the most damaging abuse he suffered took place during the time he was at the school but not enrolled as a student. He described being held down, suffocated and raped by an older male student in the other student’s dormitory bed after lights out.
He thinks this was a pre-planned attack on him as the older boy had made his bed with five or six blankets in order to stifle the noise and waited until long after others in the dorm were asleep. Johnson described fighting back and biting down on his attacker’s finger before he began suffocating him. Once the attack was over, Johnson said the older boy threatened to kill him if he spoke about it.
Johnson said this was in early 1956 and he was five years old at the time.
He would later suffer sexual abuse and other forms of torment from staff members at the school.
Poor teaching at the school left Johnson and others behind in learning. He thinks poor report cards from Choutla had him labeled a troublemaker when he went to school in Whitehorse. He said when he was 17, a teacher falsely accused him of cheating on a test and had him expelled from school.
Fighting for proper compensation
Johnson received financial compensation through the Common Experience Payment program in 2004. Documents provided by Johnson show the government recognized Johnson was at Choutla from 1957 until 1964. However, it did not recognize his claim that he was also at Choutla in 1955 and 1956.
“There is no information to suggest that underage pupils were admitted to this residential school at that time. However, the appellant offers the perfectly rational explanation that, ‘at this age, I am illegal,’” reads one of the documents Johnson received as part of the appeal denial.
The same document acknowledges that his absence from school records should not be treated as evidence that he was not there.
Following the unsuccessful conclusion of his appeals, Johnson wrote letters explaining his situation to various government officials including successive prime ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau. Johnson saved their responses, which each speak to the horrors of the residential school system as a whole but do little to address his case specifically.
Johnson has been diligently searching for more information on his time at residential school, requesting personal records from the federal government and searching archives among other steps. He says he has found it frustrating as some of the records have come back redacted and others are missing dates.
Some key pieces of information, including Johnson’s date of discharge from Charles Camsell Hospital seem lost to history. After sending away for his personal records from the hospital, Johnson received an undated document saying he would be considered for discharge in three months if his condition improved, but not a record of his date of discharge itself. Another document from the hospital saying he was admitted to the hospital in the spring of 1954 gives his year of birth incorrectly and refers to him as a her.
Johnson also retains letters from some of his family members at the Choutla school. The letters, dated from 2002, are signed by his brother Frank and his first cousin Alyce Joe. There is some inconsistency in Roy’s family’s recollections of the year he started at the school, but the 2002 letters and his sister Audrey, interviewed in 2022, agreed he was very young when he first arrived at the school.
Frank’s letter describes how he, Roy and four of their other siblings were sent to the Choutla school after staying at the hospital in Edmonton.
“He would have been four-and-a-half or five-years-old. Such a young age to be introduced to the residential program,” Frank writes about Roy in the letter.
“I came up to my brother’s thigh,” says Roy, recalling their time at Choutla together.
Frank’s letter also details the punishments dealt out by residential school staff on Fridays “a day of reckoning” to end each week. He writes that by the time Roy was “of school age” his name would be first on the list on many of those Fridays.
“When I realized Roy was my cousin, I looked after him like he was my own baby brother,” Alyce Joe wrote in her letter.
Joe describes Johnson as approximately four years old when he came to the school.
Roy’s sister Audrey also describes him being young when he first arrived at Choutla.
“All I remember is well, he was quite young. I think maybe he might have been four years old,” she says.
Audrey recalls that Roy was one of two young boys put in the dormitory with a sister. She can’t recall exactly how long she looked after him before he was moved to the boys’ dorms but said it was a period of a few months. She also recalls being kept at the school through a summer break after being released from the hospital just as Roy was. School staff told her their parents couldn’t care for them.
Besides the time when she looked after Roy, Audrey says she was rarely able to talk to her brothers at the school because the staff didn’t allow much communication between boys and girls.
Although appeals and requests for an apology have proven unsuccessful Johnson still hopes for full recognition of his experience and a correction.
“If I got the sorry from the prime minister, not just the letter it would be uplifting and time to heal,” Johnson says.
“It’s a crime to try to alter someone’s life, there should be something for it. Compensation for loss.”
He sees value in continuing to speak about this painful chapter in his life and the lives of countless other First Nations people.
“Come forward, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he says.
As for his time at the school that was not recognized, he says that while the government may not have believed him, his brothers, sister and cousin all know he was there. He thinks there are others out there who also know about students being sent to the residential schools at such a young age.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com