From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
Driving down Queen Street East of an evening, snow falls in large flakes, lights from the University spill across its expansive front lawn until they fade and leave the Shingwauk Chapel in shadow.
What has come to light in 2021; the revelation of hundreds of children’s graves at former Residential School sites across this land, makes it impossible to drive by the former Shingwauk Hall grounds without images of children’s faces flooding your vision. Their identity was routinely relegated to anonymity with the assignment of numbers in lieu of their given names upon arrival at the schools. While perusing the files on Shingwauk Hall, a yellowed and faded newspaper clipping about a former student’s acting career caught the attention of this researcher. Did you know that a young boy who attended Shingwauk, went on to become the star of the Disney film “King of the Grizzlies”?
Johnny Yesno, was just that little boy. Yesno, born in 1938 at Eabametoong Lake First Nation (Fort Hope, Kenora District), the eldest of 11 children was taken away at the age of 5 to Pelican Residential School near Sioux Lookout. By age 9 he was sent south to Sault Ste. Marie to attend Shingwauk Hall as punishment, after a failed attempt to escape in the from the Pelican school dead of winter with a friend. A 2018 Windspeaker magazine article reports that ‘the pair got lost and found themselves in Kenora, where they were rounded up by police and handcuffed”.
So began the young Johnny Yesno’s life in the Sault.
An intelligent child, academic success marked his time spent at Shingwauk Hall and in high school, at The Technical School on Wellington Street (Lakeway). A Sault Star article from February 27th of 1958 highlights the young man’s academic accomplishments with the award of a scholarship in Grade 12 from Indian Affairs, intended to provide for post-secondary education. The article continues on to report that “the award was presented before a gathering in the Shingwauk Indian Residential School of which John was a former student, by F.M. Shaw, regional inspector of Indian schools of Northern Ontario. … Mr. Shaw, presenting the award to John Yesno, referred to a recent visit to Northwestern Ontario where he met the student’s father. The weather, he said was very cold and on that day there were only four pupils at school, all brothers and sister of John Yesno.”
Of residential school, Johnny Yesno, “was often heard to say, (he) had no idea how he survived those awful years. ‘Some supervisors just liked to beat up kids” quotes Windspeaker Magazine. In a 1969 interview with Kay MacIntyre of the Sault Star, Yesno responded that “recalling school days at the Soo has rather mixed sentiments with me personally. First of all, life at the Shingwauk Home was not all that rosy, friendly and comfortable as it is purported to be.”
Having survived residential school, with scholarship in hand, the young scholar enrolled at the University of Waterloo to study Engineering. Another equally important accomplishment of young Yesno’s life also came in his early adulthood. In 1963 Johnny competed against 92 contestants and won the North American Indian Dancing Championship. It was about this time that he was ‘bitten by the acting bug’ as the saying goes.
While working for an engineering firm in Toronto he joined a dance group that was known to perform for tourists in the city. It was at just such a performance that Johnny Yesno’s star quality shone and was observed by a CBC producer, landing Yesno a role in the premiere episode of the CBC’s 1966 drama, Wojeck. To say his debut was a success would be an understatement. Johnny Yesno’s performance was
lauded with an acting award at the prestigious 1966 Monte Carlo Film Festival in France. By 1968 he was cast as Moki, the ranch foreman and lead role of the Walt Disney movie “King of the Grizzlies”. The movie production took Yesno, now 31, to the west where the scenes were filmed against the breathtaking vistas of Kananaskis Country and other Alberta and BC interior locations.
Along side Yesno, Big Ted played the part of the Wahb, the grizzly that Yesno’s character Moki had raised from a cub. In a 1969 interview with the Sault Star, Johnny Yesno revealed that he was “deathly afraid of bears….it goes back to when I was a boy berry picking. I stood up, face to face with a bear. I don’t know which was more scared, the bear or me. We both ran, and I met him again, coming around the island the other way. Then I found I had to work with a grizzly that stood seven feet high. “As the saying goes though, the show must go on and it did. If you are of ‘a certain age’, you may have watched “King of the Grizzlies” at the Orpheum Theatre in July of 1970 when the film was released.
The ‘70’s brought about a different career and notoriety for Johnny Yesno. Now the host and producer of his own CBC radio program, Indian Magazine, Johnny’s voice became a familiar sound in houses across the nation. He became the voice bringing to the forefront issues faced by Indigenous people. Indian Magazine was the first radio program in Canada by and about Indigenous people. It aired locally, Saturday evenings on CJIC Radio and eventually was rebranded Our Native Land. “His career expanded toward broadcast journalism on the CBC newsmagazine Take 30. Yesno became quite vocal about the plight of First Nations people, complaining at one point that the CBC was out of touch and failed to present an accurate picture of Canada’s Indigenous peoples”, according to an article on Northernstars.ca. In the Sault Star interview mentioned earlier, Yesno was quoted as saying that “One popular misconception about Indian Magazine is that most people seem to think it is for native people only. Not true; it’s also geared to inform the apathetic Johnny Public to learn more about the aboriginal people in this great country.”
In 1975, Johnny Yesno acted in a film that was eerily similar to his own childhood experience trying to escape residential school. The film also starred the legendary and iconic Chief Dan George of British Columbia. Cold Journey, directed by Martin Defalco, tells the story of young Buckley and the school’s Indigenous caretaker, Johnny, as played by Johnny Yesno. Yesno’s character befriends the boy who longs for home, family and his Indigenous culture. Like the 1966 true and tragic story of the late Charlie Wenjack, the character Buckley’s body is found, having frozen to death in an attempt to return to his home. Defalco’s film was the precursor that brought to light this disturbing and not isolated tragedy that befell Charlie Wenjack and other Indigenous children long before the Tragically Hip addressed it in their 2017 production of The Secret Path.
Yesno’s career in both film and journalism were recognized and acknowledged in 1976 when he was made a member of the Order of Canada. Interestingly enough, Johnny Yesno was named to the order the same year that another Sault resident, William MacDougall Hogg, president of Great Lakes Power was also bestowed with the same honour.
With his experience and success, it should come as no surprise that Johnny Yesno became a leading voice in Indigenous and government relations. Following his call to the Order of Canada, he became the director for the Chiefs of Ontario and went on to hold the position of Aboriginal Adviser with the former Ministry of Northern Development and Mines here in Sault Ste. Marie until his retirement in 2002. That hard earned retirement would last only 8 years, until March of 2010 when he passed away.
Johnny Yesno was a man who throughout his life and career was credited with “help(ing) inspire a
generation of Aboriginal people to follow their dreams” writes Bryan Meadows in a Western Star article published shortly after his passing. Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy is quoted as saying that “Yesno blazed a lot of trails for us … (he) pushed our priorities to the forefront…he worked to improve satellite communications in far northern communities.” Beardy went on to say that Johnny Yesno “educated society at a time when the Lone Ranger and Tonto was on television, about not stereotyping First Nation people.”
Truly, the best summation of Johnny Yesno’s life comes from his own words at the opening of the Rankin Arena on July 30, 1977. On this particular day, Yesno was the master of ceremony for the well-attended ribbon cutting. In regards to the arena he told the Sault Star that “the arena can help bring both communities together at a crucial time when we seem to be splitting into different ethnic and social entities”. “We want to promote the acceptance of our unique background, he says. We aren’t looking for integration. We are concerned with understanding and sharing. “
Words to live by.
Cold Journey can be live streamed directly from the National Film Board website at https://www.nfb.ca/film/cold_journey/.
Archived radio interviews hosted by John Yesno can be heard at https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/remembering-the-bad-old-days-in-the-residential-school and https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/indian-magazine-becomes-our-native-land
If you are a Survivor and need emotional support, a national crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week: Residential School Survivor Support Line: 1-866-925-4419