WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
In her three years at the Edmonton Indian Residential School, Helen Johnson figures she opened hundreds of cans of Spork.
Working in the school’s cafeteria, it was her job to dole out small portions of the foul-smelling meat for her fellow students to eat — paltry meals that left Johnson with hunger pangs and painful migraines.
“It was like a place which was worse than the jail, I think. At least they had meals every day, three meals a day,” she said. “We’d eat pork, pork, pork every day. Tons of pork.”
They’d have other meals, too. Lumpy oatmeal in the morning. A single egg at lunch. But all the offerings were meagre, and every meal was supplemented by Spork.
Staff meals, on the other hand, consisted of chicken, pork chops, steak and other choice cuts of beef. Fresh fruit and vegetables. Bread and butter. Jam. Dessert.
One May evening in 1961, her anger about that disparity reached a breaking point.
She had had enough.
So when a staff member left the cafeteria early, leaving Johnson and her friend, Maria Douglas, unsupervised, they took advantage.
Hauling the boxes of Spork into the school’s hallway, they started throwing the cans against the wall. Curious students stopped to watch their breakfast, lunch and supper fly through the air.
Listen to the radio documentary about the 1961 riot at the Edmonton Indian Residential School.
In the ensuing hours, what followed was a full-scale riot that saw approximately 100 students overpower an outnumbered staff, taking over the school until police put down their resistance.
The riot may be the only one in Canadian residential school history.
“Me, I felt like I had power,” Johnson said of that night. “I felt, ‘I have to have the power that was taken from me,’ and I felt good about it.”
Johnson’s anger had been building for much longer than she realized.
At age 12, she and her older brother had been taken from their home in Lax Kw’alaams, in northern British Columbia. The pair were first brought to St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Alert Bay, on Vancouver Island.
She was issued a number: 134. The number became a student’s identity, emblazoned on their books, equipment and even clothing.
Johnson spent three years in Alert Bay before being moved 975 kilometres away to the school near Edmonton, where a lot of Indigenous children from northern B.C. were moved. Right away, it looked all too familiar.
“I felt really sick inside because the colour of the school was the same thing as Alert Bay,” she said, describing the drab, red brick building.
Located on the city’s outskirts, in the town of St. Albert, the Edmonton Indian Residential School was managed by the United Church of Canada, operating from 1924 to 1968. The building housed both boys and girls, aged six to 17, in separate wings.
By the 1960s, the students lived at the school, but were bused into town to attend classes at a local public school. Early mornings, evenings and weekends were spent studying, doing laundry and cleaning the facility. Physical abuse was common, particularly if a student was caught speaking in their home language.
On that fateful morning, after they tired of tossing the cans of Spork, Johnson and Douglas started unpacking boxes of staff provisions — bread, butter, jam, apples, oranges and other treats — and started feeding it to a growing throng of fellow students.
Johnson said she felt for the younger students, sometimes too small to fend for themselves, and gave them their food first, telling them to go hide and eat it, before anyone tried to take it away.
“A lot of them were laughing, a lot of them were hollering — like ‘Yahoo! Way to go,’” she said. “They were happy.”
Elsewhere in the building, Ed Wright was sitting in a common room after completing his chores. He heard a growing commotion in the hallway; angry yelling echoed off the walls — a stark contrast to the quiet crying he usually heard.
Wright and some other boys walked into the hall to see what was going on — and straight into an enraged mob.
“People were hollering and yelling that we didn’t want pork anymore,” Wright recalled.
The crowd of both boys and girls, who had converged in front of the principal’s office, now numbered approximately 100 students, far greater than the three to five staff who were quickly losing control.
The commotion was also a far cry from the quiet of the village he grew up in.
Wright was born in Gitlaxt’aamiks, one of four Nisga’a villages in a snow-capped mountainous region of northern B.C. After he finished Grade 8, he knew come fall he wouldn’t call his village home again for some time.
“We knew that at the end of August we would have to travel to Edmonton,” he said.
A 14-year-old Wright travelled 1,350 kilometres by train to Edmonton to attend residential school, where he lived with other senior-aged boys on the top floor of a three-storey, drab-looking dormitory.
Looking back, two things stand out to Wright about his time at residential school: the sadness and crying of children who were far from their homes and families, and never knowing what to expect from the supervisors.
“Some of them were very mean and always hitting people,” he said.
On the night of the riot, though, the students weren’t scared of them.
Wright described a scene of bedlam, when the staff and students faced off in the hallway. Led by the principal, staff screamed at the students to stop what they were doing and go back to their rooms. The horde of students screamed back.
Some students broke into two firehose cabinets and pulled out the hoses, ready to spray water. Other students got into the building’s main electrical room and started turning the school’s lights off and on.
Then the principal was hit with a large medicine ball.
“Somebody threw that and just about knocked him over, because medicine balls are pretty heavy,” Wright said. “From there, everything just went crazy.”
Pound of flesh
Garry Patsey was just six when he arrived at the Edmonton Indian Residential School in 1952, riding from the train station in the back of a pickup truck with five of his older siblings.
He would spend the next 13 years there.
The siblings were separated, and Garry was led to the little boys’ dormitory, on the building’s first floor, where some staff sleeping quarters were located.
At night, Patsey said, they’d all hold their breath, hearing the door latch open.
“We all kind of closed our eyes really tight and put our heads under the blankets hoping that this white guy won’t pick us,” Patsey said.
It was the principal at the time, James Ludford, who would walk up and down the aisle of beds, before stopping at the foot of one. One night, two years after he arrived, the footsteps stopped at Patsey’s bed.
“I was picked. Quite a few of us were picked,” he said. “We had to go in a room and were sexually abused in the supervisor’s rooms.”
And so during the riot, Patsey found an outlet.
Patsey was studying in a classroom when he heard the ruckus in the hall. Peering out the door, he saw students and staff facing off in front of the office. He joined his classmates.
After someone sprayed the staff with a firehose, Patsey said he saw fear in them — something he’d only previously seen in his fellow students.
“We knew that they were scared of us. They retreated, locked themselves behind the door,” he said. “Then we took control of the building.”
Students, he said, fanned out across the school. Patsey and his group went to the dining room and started overturning tables. They tried throwing chairs through windows, but the windows were too narrow.
The students also broke into a pantry. Some found ice cream in the freezer. Others tried unsuccessfully to break into a large cupboard — until a boy who knew karate kicked the door open. Everything stopped when they saw what was inside: boxes and boxes of cookies and bottles of vanilla extract.
Some of the older boys made an alcoholic drink out of vanilla. Add cookies and ice cream to the mix, Patsey joked, “and the party was on.”
But Patsey’s motivation for joining the riot was decidedly less lighthearted.
“Intuitively, I knew I was harmed and I wanted to get back,” he said. “I wanted some revenge. I wanted some flesh.”
Knowing that their freedom would be short-lived and police would likely be called in, the students started organizing.
An assembly line of sorts formed, with students picking up those boxes of Spork and hauling them out to the school’s entrance. They used them to build a makeshift blockade, as wide as the hedge-lined road and several feet high.
About two to three hours after the riot began, the police arrived.
Wright and others watched as officers — some with dogs — stopped dead in their tracks, blocked by the pork-box barricade. Unable to drive around it and with too many boxes to take down, there was only one solution left.
“They had to climb over the cases of pork to take control of the school,” recalled Wright.
When police eventually entered the school, it was over. Order was re-established, students were sent to their rooms and the pork boxes were stored away.
Then consequences were meted out.
Helen Johnson was identified as a leader of the riot and swiftly punished. Her hands were strapped until swollen, she said, before she was kicked out of school. She was put on a train that same night, starting a three-day trip to Prince Rupert, B.C., with only a few belongings and no money for food.
At first, Johnson said, she thought she was finally free.
But a dose of reality hit her when she arrived back in northern B.C. She’d been away from her home for six years. Her parents were both dead. She didn’t know how to speak the language anymore.
Now, 60 years after leaving residential school, Helen said she still feels its invisible influence.
“I feel like I don’t belong here, I feel like I’m trying to fit in. It’s like a peg trying to fit into a round hole,” she said. “None of us residential school students were ever welcome home.”
The riot ultimately served its purpose, said Ed Wright. School officials were forced to change the students’ menu; there was more variety for breakfast, lunch and supper, and turkey dinner was even served some Sundays.
“Spork was hauled away to another area. We got some new supplies of food and a better budget for it.”
Wright graduated two years later. He went on to serve as band manager for his home community of Gitlaxt’aamiks and as secretary treasurer for the Nisga’a Tribal Council and Nisga’a Lisims Government. He was key in negotiating the fiscal section of the Nisga’a Treaty — Canada’s first modern-day treaty.
He’s also now a great-grandfather — but his family knows almost nothing about his residential school experience, including the riot. “I didn’t think it was an issue they wanted to deal with.”
For Garry Patsey, while the riot was primarily about personal revenge for the abuse he suffered, he also takes pride in knowing it accomplished something for all students of the Edmonton Indian Residential School.
“I think it is kind of like a victory for me and a victory for a lot of us — and we were able to push back,” he said. “We were able to get a little bit of revenge and started destroying property.”
Gitxsan by birth, Patsey said he found healing using his people’s traditional methods of wellness and therapy — something he now shares with others on their own healing journeys.
Today, he helps to support residential school survivors, day school survivors, Sixties Scoop survivors and the families of murdered and missing women.
“I transformed my trauma. I’m at peace now,” he said.
Ludford was convicted of gross indecency involving children at the Edmonton Indian Residential School, according to an appendix of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.
Wright can vividly recall the day Ludford was arrested. “We actually got to see him being taken away, head down. … Oh, everybody was cheering,” he said.
“He had no business doing what he was doing ... touching and abusing young boys.”
Ludford received a one-year suspended sentence, was to report to a mental hospital and ordered to not be involved with people under age 21. But research shows Ludford continued ministering to Indigenous people in at least two rural communities in Ontario. He died in 1990.
Except for scant mention in the Calgary Herald in 2014, the riot may have only lived in the memories of Edmonton Indian Residential School survivors if it weren’t for Larry Guno, a Nisga’a citizen from Gitlaxt’aamiks.
Guno wrote the play Bunk Number 7, based on his own involvement in the riot. The play was set to tour in B.C. in 2020, but was halted by the pandemic. After leaving the school, Guno became a lawyer, and later served five years as a provincial MLA. He died in 2005.
As for Helen Johnson, she continued living in Lax Kw’alaams. Driven by memories of school staff telling her she would never amount to anything, Johnson pursued education. She earned a social work degree from the University of British Columbia, and worked as a social worker for her First Nation. She also has genealogical training, and works with an agency doing genealogical research for the First Nation’s children.
Looking back, Johnson said she counts herself among those in history who dared to stand up, say “no more” and resist.
“I felt proud. And I feel most of the students feel a lot better knowing that there is somebody there fighting for them. And that’s what I’m doing — and I’m still at it today.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Written by: Wawmeesh Hamilton | Copy edited by: Amy Husser | Artwork by: Ben Shannon | Lead Digital Producer: Althea Manasan | Senior Digital Producer: Lakshine Sathiyanathan | Audio documentary by: Wawmeesh Hamilton, Jodie Martinson, Alison Cook