Yukon man taken to Choutla boarding school aged 4 denied compensation for early years

The following story contains heartbreaking details of physical, psychological and sexual abuse in residential schools. Yukoners in Whitehorse and communities can schedule quick access to counseling services at 1-867-456-3838. The National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Roy Johnson feels like he was the victim of a crime. Part of that crime—his enrollment in a residential school between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s—was publicly acknowledged. Another part didn’t: wasted months between when Johnson says he was first sent to boarding school in Choutla 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 home to Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton as a young child because he had caught tuberculosis. The disease was spreading rapidly in the Klondike at the time. Johnson said he was about two years old when he was fired.

On the way home from the hospital, Johnson says he remembers being picked up by what he believes to be the principal of the Choutla school at the Whitehorse airport and taken to the school of Carcross.

He believes he was kept in Carcross at such a young age because the tuberculosis that sent him to hospital in Edmonton was still circulating in Dawson. He remembers the man who took him to Carcross wearing a white collar that might have belonged to a priest.

Johnson says it was 1955. He thinks it was winter that year because he remembers it was getting dark when he got off the plane from Edmonton to Whitehorse . Johnson said he stayed in school without returning home through the summer of 1956, then was 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 matters because it affects Johnson’s Common Experience Payment – ​​a lump sum payment made to all residential school survivors following a nationwide class action lawsuit in 2005. Survivors are entitled to additional money per year spent at boarding school.

The federal government refused to compensate Johnson for his time at the school before 1957, when he was officially registered as a student. He appealed the decision and wrote letters to various governments fighting it, to no avail.

A decade of abuse and “mind games”

Johnson describes how, upon arriving at school, he didn’t actually attend class, but was often left playing in a corner of the classroom. He says he first slept in the girls’ dormitory, guarded by his sister, Audrey, who is five years older. Later, he was moved to the boys’ dorm to stay with his brothers Frank and Ronald.

He would stay at Choutla School until 1964, then attend school in Whitehorse until 1968.

Johnson describes a series of abuse suffered at school. He recounted the vicious punishment he received from school staff and saw other students receiving it. These included beatings with straps and students being forced to stand on benches whenever they weren’t in class, sometimes for months at a time.

He said the boys’ names would be listed at the start of summer vacation and they would be punished when they returned to school, which Johnson described as a “mind game”.

Johnson said the most damaging abuse he suffered took place while he was in school but not enrolled as a student. He described being held down, smothered and raped by an older student in the other student’s dorm bed after the lights went out.

He believes it was a pre-planned attack on him as the older boy had made his bed with five or six blankets in order to drown out the noise and had waited long after the others in the dorm had left. asleep. Johnson described hitting back and biting off his attacker’s finger before beginning to choke him. After the attack was over, Johnson said the older boy threatened to kill him if he told anyone about it.

Johnson said it was early 1956 and he was five years old at the time.

He would later suffer sexual abuse and other forms of torment from school staff members.

Poor teaching at school left Johnson and others behind in learning. He believes Choutla’s poor school reports labeled him a troublemaker when he went to school in Whitehorse. He said that when he was 17, a teacher falsely accused him of cheating on an exam and had him expelled from school.

Fight for just compensation

Johnson received financial compensation under the Common Experience Payment program in 2004. Documents provided by Johnson show that the government acknowledged that Johnson was in Choutla from 1957 to 1964. However, it did not acknowledge his claim that he was also in Choutla in 1955 and 1956.

“There is no information to suggest that underage students were admitted to this boarding school at this time. However, the appellant offers the perfectly rational explanation that, ‘at this age, I am illegal,'” read one of the documents received by Johnson as part of the appeal denial.

The same document acknowledges that his absence from school records should not be taken as proof that he was not there.

Following his failed 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 specifically address her case.

Johnson diligently sought out more information about her time at boarding school; request personal records from the federal government and search for records, among other steps. He said he found it frustrating because some of the recordings came back redacted and others are missing dates.

Some key information, including Johnson’s release date from Charles Camsell Hospital, seems lost to history. After returning his personal records from the hospital, Johnson received an undated document indicating he would be considered for discharge in three months if his condition improved, but not a record of his discharge date itself. Another hospital document stating that he was admitted to the hospital in the spring of 1954 gives his year of birth incorrectly and identifies him as female.

Johnson also keeps letters from some of his family members at the Choutla school. The letters, dated 2002, are signed by his brother Frank and his first cousin Alyce Joe. There is some inconsistency in Roy’s family memories of the year he started school, but letters from 2002 and his sister Audrey, interviewed in 2022, agreed that he was very young when came to school for the first time.

Frank’s letter describes how he, Roy and four of their other siblings were sent to Choutla School after being in 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 wrote of Roy in the letter.

“I came to my brother’s thigh,” Roy said, recalling their time at Choutla together.

Frank’s letter also details the punishments meted out by boarding school staff on Friday “a day of reckoning” that ends each week. He writes that by the time Roy was “of school age”, his name would be first on the list of many of those Fridays.

“When I realized Roy was my cousin, I cared for him like he was my own little brother,” Alyce Joe wrote in her letter.

Joe describes Johnson as about four years old when he arrived at school.

Roy’s sister, Audrey, also describes him as young when he first arrived in Choutla.

“All I remember is good, he was quite young. I think he was maybe four,” she said.

Audrey remembers that Roy was one of two young boys put in the dormitory with a sister. She doesn’t remember exactly how long she cared for him before he was moved to the boys’ dorms, but she said it was a period of a few months. She also remembers being kept at school during a summer break after being released from the hospital, just like Roy. The school staff told him that their parents could not take care of them.

Besides the time she cared for Roy, Audrey said she was rarely able to talk to her brothers at school because the staff didn’t allow much communication between boys and girls.

Although appeals and requests for apologies have proven unsuccessful, Johnson still hopes for full acknowledgment of his experience and correction.

“If I received the Prime Minister’s apology, not just the letter, it would be uplifting and it would be time to heal,” Johnson said.

“It’s a crime to try to change someone’s life, there should be something for that. Compensation for loss.

He feels it is worth continuing to talk about this painful chapter in his life and the lives of countless other First Nations people.

“Come on, there’s nothing to fear,” he said,

As for his time at the school going unacknowledged, 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 who also know that students were sent to boarding schools at such a young age.

Contact Jim Elliot at [email protected]

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