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By Sandrine Murray

Warning: This
story contains
details about abuse.

Johnny Johns likes telling stories of his childhood, writing down bits of them on scraps of paper before he forgets. He’s got so much to tell. 

He remembers being nine at his grandfather’s hunting camp, in 1963. His grandfather and namesake, Johnnie Johns, whose Tlingit name, Yéil Shaan, means “Old Crow,” was a Yukon legend, described at the time as one of the best hunting guides in the world. Born in 1898, the year of the Klondike Gold Rush, Johnnie would guide the rich to big game, hunting caribou, sheep, and bears.

The darker stories the younger Johnny remembers are about what he calls “the Mission,” also known as Choutla Indian Residential School, in Carcross. It operated 1903–39, when it burned down, and again, after it was rebuilt, 1944–69. Johnny remembers the abuse he suffered at the hands of his grade-four teacher and the lack of interest shown in figuring out why he couldn’t read. “They thought I was dumb,” he says. What he really needed were glasses so he could see the board.

This spring, the site where Choutla once stood, near the shore of Nares Lake, will be the first of Yukon’s former Indian Residential School sites to be searched for unmarked graves. It’s part of a national call to locate and remember the many children who didn’t return home from residential school. 

Johnny Johns worked as an environmental monitor during the 2017 demolition at Choutla.

After Johnnie’s career as a hunting guide, he became a land-claims champion in the 1960s, striving to include both status and non-status Yukon First Nations in negotiations. (As a young man, he had been forced to give up his First Nations status and rights in order to run his hunting outfit.) In 1973, a Yukon delegation of First Nations chiefs presented a document of grievances to the Canadian government in 1973 called “Together Today for our Children Tomorrow.”

“During this time there was one program which continued to break down the Indian family and the Indian way of life,” read the report. “This was the residential school.”

Johnnie campaigned for and believed in a better future for his children. But for his grandson, Johnny, and countless others, Canada’s Indian Residential School system had already done irrevocable damage. Johnny spent 10 years in residential schools, mostly at Choutla but also the Baptist Mission School, in Whitehorse. Now, more than 50 years after both schools were shuttered, their dark histories will be revisited. 

When the community of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc identified more than 200 unmarked graves at the former site of a residential school in Kamloops, B.C., in spring 2021, it led to calls for searches at other sites. Hundreds more unmarked graves were discovered in the weeks that followed. Countless sites across the country remain to be searched, including those in the Yukon. Last June, Yukon Premier Sandy Silver said his government will fund these searches. The federal government has also promised funding for the searches as well as for programs to support Indigenous communities through the process.

“Of course, they’re going to find something.”

There were six residential schools and residences in the territory: St. Paul’s Hostel, in Dawson City; Choutla, in Carcross; Shingle Point, on the Yukon’s Arctic coast; and Coudert Hall, Whitehorse Baptist Mission, and Yukon Hall, in Whitehorse. As well, many Yukon students attended the Lower Post Residential School, in northern B.C., which was ceremonially demolished last summer, years after First Nations leaders called for its razing.

Children who attended residential schools died at a much higher rate than children who did not attend them. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) lists confirmed deaths at residential schools as either “named” or “unnamed.” The latter were children not named by school principals in the reports about their deaths. In the Yukon, there are reports of 29 deaths of students who were named and another 45 who were not. (The TRC notes some duplication is possible due to the lack of available information; many records were destroyed).

The search for graves may tell a more complete story.

“Of course, they’re going to find something,” says Johnny. He remembers children leaving school and not returning. Nationally, diseases, particularly tuberculosis, took the lives of many children. Others died from accidents, drownings, and exposure, sometimes during attempts to run away. Some students took their own lives.

Although churches ran the schools, the federal government funded them. (In 1969, the Yukon government took over responsibility for the operation of schools in the territory.) Standards were not sufficient to ensure the health and safety of residential-school students, nor were any standards enforced. The government did not want to spend the money, the TRC explained.

Choutla, run by the Anglican Church, was known for its poor health and food and strict disciplinary measures. The TRC notes that, in 1939, the federal department then known as Indian Affairs received a report from Carcross principal H.C. Grant, explaining students had been “laid across the classroom desk in the presence of the whole school, clad only in their night attire, and strapped on a different part of their anatomy than their hands.”

In an interview with the TRC, Elder Mary Battaja recalled the discipline she and other students faced while attending Choutla from 1954 to 1958: “I remember if I got into trouble the teacher would throw chalk at you or strap you, and if you as much as turn around or whisper to another child you would get sent to the principal’s office, and you could be sure at the end of the day you will get a strap. That happened quite often.”

A garage and warehouse were the last structures removed from the site.

Adeline Webber, an Elder with the Kukhhittan Clan of the Teslin Tlingit Council, chairs the Choutla Residential School Committee, which is planning the searches for graves in the Yukon. The committee includes representatives from several Yukon First Nations because students were taken to Choutla and other residential schools from throughout the territory.

Webber has a personal interest in the searches. She suspects her brother, Albert Jackson, is buried at Choutla. She only learned about his death last year, after looking at an archival report listing deaths at the school. The five-year-old entered the school on Sept. 1, 1942, and died that same month. According to the report, he died from dysentery, though Webber says other students have said he had measles. Webber has found no other recorded information about Jackson.

“I was amazed that the records didn’t show where [the students] came from, their communities,” she explains. Most of what Webber knows of Jackson came from her mother. Webber, herself, attended residential school in Whitehorse.

The residential school committee meets regularly to plan the search and find experts to carry it out. The whole process will take four years, Webber says. The first search will focus on Choutla before moving to former school sites in Whitehorse, Dawson, and Shingle Point. Webber says the First Nations want to see a process that includes input from all the communities; the committee is involving a project coordinator from the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, for example, where the Shingle Point school was located.

The former site of Choutla is mostly empty, the school long gone. The land where it once stood has been cleared. Johnny was there in 2017, when the site’s last buildings, a garage and warehouse, were demolished. He was the senior environmental monitor and Carcross/Tagish First Nation Elder on-site for the demolitions.

“We want to make something happy out of it,” he said at the time. The future of the site has yet to be determined. Remediation work is still needed to remove soil contaminated from an old oil tank. But that won’t get in the way of the search.

Webber says ground-radar specialists will likely start working at Choutla as soon as the ground thaws this spring. Radar paints a picture of what’s below the ground, using sound waves to draw anomalies in the ground as they bounce back off different densities.

In addition to organizing the searches, the committee is also diving into research, looking through all available archival materials, and collecting stories, from the public and the churches, too, both Catholic and Anglican. Webber says they will use this information to build a repository of the schools.

The searches will be part of a healing process that will take time. “I think it’s going to be another journey that people will need to take,” Webber says. Having ceremonies and Elders available to guide the process will be an important component of the work being planned, she says. “This is just the beginning for some people.”