Basil H. Johnston | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Basil H. Johnston

Basil H. Johnston, OOnt, Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) author, linguist, teacher (born 13 July 1929 on Wasauksing First Nation, ON; died 8 September 2015 in Wiarton, ON). One of the foremost Indigenous authors in Canada, Basil Johnston, a lecturer at the Royal Ontario Museum, wrote widely about Anishinaabe traditions, language and modern life. Johnston has influenced various contemporary writers, including Drew Hayden Taylor and Joseph Boyden.

Early Life and Education

Born on 13 July 1929, on the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario, to Rufus and Mary (née Lafrenière) Johnston, Basil Johnston was one of five children and the only boy. The family later moved to Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker) First Nation, on the eastern shore of Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. Johnston’s parents split up when he was still young. Impoverished and illiterate, Johnston’s mother was convinced by the local priest and Indian Agent in 1939 to send Johnston and his four-year-old sister, Marilyn, to St. Peter Claver’s School, a Jesuit-run residential school in the Northern Ontario community of Spanish, 120 km west of Sudbury. Johnston outlined his experience at residential school, in part, in his well-received 1988 book, Indian School Days.

Although his experience in residential school was a subject of his writing, Johnston did not publicly disclose the abuses he suffered in residential school until late in his life. In 2004, Basil revealed that after he was taken away from home to St. Peter Claver’s School (often referred to as Spanish Residential School), older boys at the school sexually abused him, as did school staff. Like many Indigenous People of his generation who attended residential schools, Johnston endured physical and physiological abuse during his education, and kept his true experiences there hidden for most of his life.

In grade 8, Johnston’s father abruptly removed him from school. For a few years as a teenager, Johnston lived alone on the Cape Croker reserve, trying to support himself through traditional fur trapping. Not very successful at this venture, he returned to Spanish to attend the newly created secondary school.

Johnston reportedly thrived in high school, learning to love books and hockey. He graduated as the class valedictorian and went on to Loyola College in Montréal — a Jesuit-run, English-speaking college (now part of Concordia University). At Loyola, Johnston played high-level varsity hockey. Sports continued to be a serious hobby for Johnston; he played hockey recreationally into his fifties, and football and baseball were important to him too.

Johnston graduated from Loyola College with an honours bachelor degree, and moved to Toronto in the late 1950s. For a time he worked at the Toronto Board of Trade. In 1959, he married Lucie Desroches. The couple had met at a social function through Holy Rosary Church in Toronto. Basil and Lucie had three children.

In 1962, Johnston enrolled in the Ontario College of Education and completed a secondary school teaching certificate. He taught history at Earl Haig Secondary School in North York until 1970.

Work at the ROM

Johnston was recruited into the ethnology (later anthropology) department at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) by Dr. Edward S. Rogers, in 1970. Initially hired on a temporary basis as a lecturer, Johnston’s early duties included visiting Toronto-area schools and Indigenous communities in southern Ontario, delivering talks with the use of museum artifacts as teaching aids. Hired on permanently at the ROM two years later, Johnston’s lectures shifted from a focus on museum artifacts to Indigenous storytelling. It was during his 25-year career at the ROM that Johnston emerged as a leading Indigenous literary voice. Johnston used his position at the museum to collect and record Anishinaabe stories — work that would prove groundbreaking and highly influential. Johnston retired from the ROM in 1995 to Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker) First Nation, where he continued to teach and write until his death in 2015.

Literary Career and Works

Johnston emerged as a writer in the 1970s, during what is now recognised as a time of Indigenous cultural renaissance in Canada. In an era when few books were written by Indigenous authors, publishers almost rejected Johnston’s first manuscripts. Editors feared that Johnston’s early writings would have no potential market, even though they found his work “authentic.” If not for the professional support of Jack McClelland, Anna Porter and a handful of other editors, Johnston’s early classics, Ojibway Heritage (1976) and Moose Meat & Wild Rice (1978), may never have been published.

His books can be broadly classified into the following categories:

1. Memoir and contemporary Anishinaabe perspectives:

  • Moose Meat & Wild Rice (McClelland & Stewart, 1978)
  • Indian School Days (Key Porter, 1988)
  • Hudson Bay Watershed: A Photographic Memoir of the Ojibway, Cree and Oji-Cree (with John Macfie) (Dundurn Press, 1991)
  • Hudson Bay Portraits: Native Peoples of the Hudson Bay Watershed (with John Macfie) (Dundurn Press, 1992)
  • Crazy Dave (Key Porter, 1999)
  • Candies: A Humour Composite (Kegedonce Press, 2015)

2. Anishinaabe traditional storytelling and culture:

  • Ojibway Heritage (McClelland & Stewart, 1976)
  • Ojibway Ceremonies (McClelland & Stewart, 1982)
  • Tales of the Anishinaubaek (illustrated by Maxine Noel) (ROM, 1993)
  • The Bear Walker and Other Stories (illustrated by David A. Johnson) (ROM, 1995)
  • The Manitous: The Spiritual World of the Ojibway (Key Porter, 1995)
  • The Star Man and Other Tales (with Jonas George [Wah-sa-ghe-zik], illustrated by Ken Syrette)(ROM, 1997)
  • Mermaids and Medicine Women (illustrated by Maxine Noel) (ROM, 1998)
  • The Art of Norval Morrisseau, The Writings of Basil H. Johnston (Glenbow Museum, 1999)
  • Honour Earth Mother: Mino-audjaudauh Mizzu-Kummik-Quae (Kegedonce Press, 2003)
  • Think Indian: Languages are Beyond Price (Kegedonce Press, 2011)
  • Living in Harmony: Mino-nawae-indawaewin (Kegedonce Press, 2012)
  • Walking in Balance: Meeyau-ossaewin (Kegedonce Press, 2013)

3. Anishninaabe traditional storytelling and culture adapted for children:

  • How the Birds Got Their Colours: Gah w'indinimowaut binaesheehnyuk w'idinauziwin-wauh (Kids Can Press, 1978)
  • Tales the Elders Told: Ojibway Legends (ROM, 1981)
  • By Canoe & Moccasin: Some Native Place Names of the Great Lakes (illustrated by David Beyer) (Waapoone, 1986)
  • Gift of the Stars: Anungook gauh meenikooying (Kegedonce Press, 2010)

4. Anishinaabemowin language:

  • Ojibway Language Course Outline for Beginners (Education and Cultural Support Branch, Northern and Indian Affairs, 1978)
  • Ojibway Language Lexicon for Beginners (Education and Cultural Support Branch, Northern and Indian Affairs, 1978)
  • Anishinaubae Thesaurus (Michigan State University Press, 2007)

Ojibway Heritage and Ojibway Ceremonies were written to re-sensitize Anishinaabe people to traditions. How the Birds Got Their Colours (1978), Tales the Elders Told: Ojibway Legends (1981) and By Canoe & Moccasin: Some Native Names of the Great Lakes are Anishinaabe Traditional Stories adapted for children. Moose Meat & Wild Rice is a loosely fictionalized collection of humorous short stories about contemporary reserve life. Indian School Days traces Johnston’s childhood years at St. Peter Claver's School in Spanish, Ontario.

Awards and Honours

Johnston was recipient of the Order of Ontario in 1989. He also received a number of other awards and honours from the federal government, Indigenous community and academic institutions, including the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal, Queen's Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals, National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now Indspire) for Heritage and Spirituality, Anskohk Aboriginal Literary Awards Lifetime Achievement Award, and honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto and Laurentian University.


Johnston’s life passion was to teach others about Anishinaabe culture and language, and this was reflected in his books and speaking engagements. He was the author of 25 books in English and five in the Anishinaabemowin language (see also Aboriginal Languages of Canada). He also developed audio programs to teach Anishinaabemowin and published numerous articles in newspapers, anthologies and periodicals.

As a highly prolific author and storyteller, Johnston did much to clear a path for contemporary Indigenous Canadian writing talent. When Johnston began writing, he found an audience during an era when Indigenous voices and stories were little-known by the rest of Canada. By the end of Johnston’s career, Indigenous literary production had blossomed.

Joseph Boyden considered Johnston a mentor and friend, saying his work “allowed me to write.” Drew Hayden Taylor described Johnston as “a veritable library of the Anishinaabe universe.” Waubgeshig Rice has characterized Johnston as “among the canon of literary giants in Indigenous literature.” Tomson Highway said of Johnston, “We wouldn't have been able to do what we are doing today, this current generation of writers, including myself, without people like him coming before us.” Writer and publisher Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm published several of Johnston’s last works through her press, Kegedonce Press.

More than just an author, in his later years Johnston turned his focus to the preservation of Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe, once again acting as a trailblazer for others to follow.

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