Books

Native connection

A writer and convicted murderer tells her story

MARY NEMETH July 13 1998
Books

Native connection

A writer and convicted murderer tells her story

MARY NEMETH July 13 1998

Native connection

Books

A writer and convicted murderer tells her story

On the night of Sept. 14, 1989, Leonard Charles Skwarok was sexually assaulted and murdered in the basement of a house in Wetaskiwin, in central Alberta. Four people were convicted for their involvement in the attack. But only one of them, Yvonne Johnson, was found guilty of first-degree murder with no eligibility for parole for 25 years;

Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman (Knopf Canada, $34.95) is her story. Much of the book, cowritten with Governor General’s Award-winning author Rudy Wiebe, is about the terrible forces that shaped Johnson. And Stolen Life is largely a product of her efforts to move beyond the violence of that night and all the suffering that came before it. ‘To me, writing this book will release long hidden fears, dreams, hurts, love, pain,” she wrote as she awaited trial. “I’m doing this also in hopes of dealing with things that I never did before. Somehow maybe figure out some answers.”

Stolen Life is a raw book, full of anguish and abuse. It is not an easy read.

But it is an important document, and a considerable writing accomplishment. It also seems to be a plea for understanding—of 36-year-old Johnson, but also of others overwhelmed by terrible life burdens. Wiebe, author of several short-story collections and eight novels, tells bits of the story in his own words and distils his own research. He analyzes the evidence of Johnson’s role in Skwarok’s killing, suggesting that she deserved a lesser charge. He quotes renowned Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby calling the Alberta Court of Appeal’s 1993 decision to reject Johnson’s appeal “an outrageous miscarriage of justice.” But mostly Wiebe excerpts Johnson’s own rich, colorful writing in numerous letters and 17 prison notebooks. And he quotes from their conversations over more than five years of collaboration, weaving the strands of her tortured story into a careful chronology.

It was Wiebe’s novel The Temptations of Big Bear, about the Plains Cree chief who was Johnson’s great-great-grandfather, that prompted her to write Wiebe from prison with her story. She was born in Montana, into “the hardworking world of a miner’s family,” the sixth of seven children—her moth-

er a Cree from Saskatchewan, her father a former U.S. marine of Norwegian ancestry. As a child, she suffered taunts about her race and disability. Afflicted with a cleft lip and palate, she was unable to speak clearly before undergoing years of painful surgery.

Johnson writes of being sexually abused as a child, of memories rekindled by more re-

cent rapes. “I’m having these terrible—not nightmares... sort of pictures,” she recalls. She was 2 or 3 when she was first raped, Johnson writes. She describes several terrifying, gut-wrenching scenes, sometimes identifying her abusers, other times recalling only snapshots—a rip in a T-shirt, horrible pain.

Johnson recounts her numerous suicide attempts, as well as efforts to turn her life around. And she writes lovingly of her three children, who are now in foster care. Her two youngest are the children of her husband, Dwayne Wenger, who was convicted

of second-degree murder in Skwarok’s death. Her eldest is from a previous relationship. But even the joys of motherhood could not erase her past. She went out drinking again after her last baby was born, and when she was drunk, she got into fights. “People had reason to fear me,” she concedes. “Except my kids.”

Johnson did not testify at her own trial, and it was several years into their collaboration before Wiebe heard her full version of Skwarok’s death. The details are chilling. Johnson describes how she and the others accused Skwarok of being a child molester. She admits that she hit him and twice pulled for a few seconds on a cord around his neck. She says she also spread his legs before someone else sexually assaulted him with a table leg. But she describes others delivering most of the beating. Johnson seems sincere in her regret, yet it is impossible to ignore the brutality of the attack.

But that is part of what makes Stolen Life so wrenching. “More and more,” Wiebe said in a recent interview, “the question in my mind became, ‘How could a woman as tender and caring and considerate as she is—as I got to know her—have been involved in such a terrible murder?’ ” Wiebe argues that her story illustrates how the horrors some children endure can influence their adult lives. “This simple [idea], you commit a crime, you’re responsible for it, out you go—this is not justice,” Wiebe insists. ‘We have to understand where this person comes from.”

Wiebe also speaks of the blight of systemic poverty and the legacy of Big Bear’s encounters with white society. Johnson’s life “is a continuing part of that story, of what has happened to native people in our country,” he contends. “It’s something that we as whites better recognize.” Wiebe is hopeful Stolen Life will reawaken interest in Johnson’s case. But Johnson herself insists that she £ has no expectations. In an interview § with Maclean’s from the minimum I security Okimaw Ohci Healing ° Lodge in Saskatchewan, where she is serving her sentence, Johnson said that she sees herself “kind of beyond help—I can only help myself. But there’s a lot of people out there struggling. Is anybody going to help them?”

Johnson will be eligible for parole in 2014. For now, she is seeking answers in native spirituality and praying for Skwarok. “I beg he forgives us all,” she writes. Her story may not ultimately sway the justice system. But it may help Yvonne Johnson heal. And it will surely provide insight into the troubled wellsprings of violent lives.

MARY NEMETH