Basil Johnston liked to sign his letters "Aboriginally yours." Torn from his impoverished family at age 10, he survived the cruelties of residential school in Northern Ontario to live successfully in two cultures as a brilliant educator, linguist, foremost scholar of Anishinaabe life and a writer or co-author of 22 books that broke ground for the current flowering of First Nations literature.
"I called Basil Uncle," recalled Joseph Boyden, author of native-themed historical novels including Through Black Spruce and The Orenda. "He was my mentor and [his work] allowed me to write."
Mr. Johnston's best-loved book is probably the 1988 memoir Indian School Days, a Canadian Huckleberry Finn, set in St. Peter Claver's Residential School for boys in Spanish, Ont., where he had been a student. It is a hilarious yet heartbreaking account of the camaraderie of Indian boys, sometimes tormented by, but more often outwitting, the Jesuit brothers who were teaching them the bizarre ways of "civilized" white people.
The celebrated American Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich called it "a work to enrich the understanding and move the heart."
"He couldn't write about the sexual abuse, he found it too shameful," said his literary agent Beverley Slopen, who had suggested that he write a memoir.
Mr. Johnston, who had been suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney failure, died in hospital in Wiarton, Ont., on Sept. 8. He was 86.
His other notable works include the highly entertaining, lightly fictionalized story collection Moose Meat and Wild Rice (1978) in which he skilfully conveyed the wit and humour and character of Anishinaabe, or Ojibwa, people. Amazingly, his was the first attempt to record the distinctive Indian sense of comedy.
The Manitous (1995), a sea of stories about warriors, thieves, spirits, talking snakes and foxes, giants and wicked Weendigoes, succeeded in transmuting into literature the oral legends and foundational tales of nature-based Ojibway spirituality and ethics.
His daughter Miriam Johnston recalled her father's self-discipline: "He would write every single morning and play fiddle every evening. He loved the fiddle – I don't know where he learned it."
Basil Johnston was born on the Parry Island Indian Reserve on July 13, 1929, to Rufus and Mary (née Lafrenière) Johnston, one of five children and the only boy. After his parents split up, Mary, who was illiterate, struggled to feed her brood. The Indian agent and the local priest decided Basil and his four-year-old sister Marilyn should be removed to residential school in Spanish. (Selection for residential schools, of which 76 were in operation in the 1940s, tilted toward orphaned, abandoned or poor children.)
His school was in part a farm and the children had to work hard tending the fields, feeding the chickens, milking cows. They were taught tailoring and blacksmithing and to read and speak English. The government provided only 40 cents a day per boy, so there was never enough to eat. Minor infractions were mercilessly punished with the strap. Mr. Johnston wrote that even if the boys at Spanish received less malevolent treatment than native children at other institutions, "the sense of hurt and alienation was not in any proportion diminished. Most of the boys were already hurt; they were orphans, waifs, cast-offs … who needed less of a heavy hand, a heavy foot, heavy words, and more of affection, approbation, praise, guidance, trust."
In Grade 8, his father, Rufus, suddenly removed him from the school, then left Basil when he found work in a lumber camp. The teenage Basil, living alone in the family's house on the Cape Croker Reserve, on the east shore of Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, tried unsuccessfully to support himself by traditional fur trapping. When the school at Spanish (now renamed Garnier Residential School) created a secondary school, hiring two trained lay teachers for the first time, he returned there with a sense of relief.
In high school he soared. He made friends, played hockey and football, was a devotee of Foster Hewitt's hockey broadcasts on radio, discovered girls, discovered books and was put in charge of the chicken coop. The food improved slightly and the academic subjects grew more compelling. There were even dance lessons and instruction in table manners. He graduated as the class valedictorian, and went on to Loyola College in Montreal, a Jesuit college for English-speaking Catholic men (since 1974, it has been part of Concordia University).
In an urban environment far from home, sports helped him fit in.
"I knew my father as a sportsman," his son, Geoffery, said. "He played a high level of hockey on the varsity team at Loyola and he played into his 50s with the Toronto Islanders, a Native hockey team. Football was really big. He played baseball, too – he was a pitcher."
Back in Toronto, he found a job with the Board of Trade, but he was nearing 30 and desperately lonely.
"He went to Holy Rosary, and the church had what my dad called the lonely hearts club," recalled his daughter Miriam. It was here that he met Lucie Desroches, a 19-year-old blond beauty. "He finally got up the nerve to ask her to dance and found that she was from Lafontaine, on Georgian Bay. Her first language was French and they both had had to learn English in school." Their marriage proved ideally happy, producing three children in five years.
Mr. Johnston enrolled at the Ontario College of Teachers in 1962 and went on to teach history at Earl Haig Secondary School in north Toronto, until he came to the attention of Dr. Edward Rogers, head of ethnology (later called anthropology) at the Royal Ontario Museum. Impressed by Mr. Johnston's fluent knowledge of his native language, Anishinaabemowin, Dr. Rogers hired him in 1970 without a firm job description, the only indigenous person on staff.
"He was not much interested in the collections, in material culture," recalled curator Arni Brownstone, who worked with him at the ROM for two decades. "He worked independently, writing about Ojibway history, language, folk tales, which he collected. He went out with a tape recorder, paper, pen to talk to the elders and record and translate their stories." The museum published his collections of legends including The Bear Walker and Other Stories, The Star Man and Other Tales and Mermaids and Medicine Women.
"Basil was very dedicated and worked alone, writing in his office," his former colleague added. "He was a great speaker and gave talks around the city." He also co-ordinated what was shown to children coming to the museum and created the Museumobile, which toured the province filled with educational materials about native heritage and languages.
Hoping for a wider readership, he approached McClelland & Stewart, where Anna Porter bought his manuscripts in the 1970s for Ojibway Ceremonies and Ojibway Heritage, though many at M&S doubted that these books would sell.
Ms. Porter was his editor and publisher for two decades: "We used to meet at the Park Plaza rooftop bar, near the ROM – a lot of writers and publishers met there," she recalled. "He had a great sense of humour. There wasn't much discussion at that time yet about Indians – he called himself proudly Indian – and I loved working with him. He was so much fun to be with, and told a lot of funny stories. He was amused by the misunderstandings in books by non-native writers, and in the press. Intellectually, he was up there, extraordinarily well-read and opinionated. He had real resilience."
Passionate about language as the only true pathway into the culture, he developed tapes, CDs and other aids to teach Anishinaabe, the second-largest Indian language group in North America. In 1978, his Ojibway Language Lexicon for Beginners was published. It is still in use.
The family lived in Richmond Hill but had a summer house on Cape Croker Reserve, where Mr. Johnston welcomed anyone who wanted to learn.
"He taught us every day when we were children, until we became teenagers and rebelled," his daughter Miriam said.
"When I contacted Louise Erdrich [in North Dakota] to ask her to write a blurb for Indian School Days, she said 'I'd be honoured to blurb Basil Johnston – I listen to him every day," his agent, Ms. Slopen, recalled. "I thought she'd confused him with another Johnston. But no – she had his language tapes."
After he retired from the ROM in 1995, he spent winters in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and learned Spanish; he continued to write, and for two terms taught teachers in Brandon, Man., how to teach indigenous children.
Mr. Johnston received the Order of Ontario in 1989, honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto and Laurentian University, and an Aboriginal Achievement Award.
His son, Geoffery, maintains that his father overcame his residential school trauma through forgiveness: "We were Catholic, he raised us Catholic and we learned to forgive. The foundation of Catholicism is forgiveness."
His younger daughter Elizabeth (Tibby), however, believes that forgiveness ran out in old age. Mr. Johnston left instructions for a traditional Ojibway interment: "After my mother died [in 2001], he could let that stuff go, the religious stuff," she said. "He wanted no priests at his end of life ceremonies – he was very clear. He realized that it had done so much harm to his life and the culture of all first nations."
Basil Johnston leaves his daughters, Miriam and Tibby; son, Geoffery; four grandsons; and sisters Janet, Ernestine and Marilyn. His wife, Lucie, and sister Gladys predeceased him.
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