What do Martha Stewart and Yvonne Johnson have in common? They both spent time in prison. Stewart, wealthy and famous, served five months for manipulating stocks, while Johnson was charged with first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. This is where the similarities end.
Stewart recently spoke at Leadership Conference for Women in Calgary and, when asked about her prison experience, said very little rehabilitation happens and that many of the women should not be there, because of unfair trials.
Johnson grew up marginalized from childhood onwards. After having gone from one prison to another for 19 years, she continues to live in poverty. However, she is trying to recreate a life for herself and her grandchildren by sharing her life experiences and helping others to benefit from the insights she gained.
Johnson is supported in this by a group of friends, including Rudy and Tena Wiebe with whom she has a special relationship, given that Rudy co-authored Johnson’s autobiography, Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman, with her while she was in prison. The book builds a case that casts doubt on her trial and became a national bestseller.
About her imprisonment and sentencing, Johnson says, “I was arrested in September 1989, a few weeks before my 27th birthday, and held without bail until trial, March 1991, when I was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with possible eligibility for parole after serving 25 years. In 2008 I was granted day parole and finally granted full parole in 2012, when I was 51.”
In 2008, Johnson received guardianship of her two grandchildren. She is very protective of them and tries to guide them to make good choices. She applied for an apartment for the three of them, while at a halfway house. Johnson also completed many courses offered in prison and is interested in creating a website to sell her native artwork.
She has had a number of requests to speak to the law class at the University of Saskatchewan. While there, she has sold many of her books.
Another friend, Mary Stacey, who is deeply interested in native women, runs a counselling service for women like Johnson and recently met with her. That has given Johnson a new sense of excitement about sharing her experiences and becoming self-sufficient.
Johnson’s physical and emotional health have been impacted by her experiences—inadequate housing and the demands of raising two grandchildren now entering their early teens. She is reviving A.I.S.H (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) and would like to find steady work. But she tires easily due to medical conditions. So a group of friends is assisting her with getting resources she needs for speaking engagements and other opportunities to sell books in order that she can have her own way of supporting herself and her grandchildren.
Johnson dreams about her grandchildren being able to experience the love of the land that was so vital to her when she was a child. She talks about gardening and having a sweat lodge. Her eyes brighten when I tell her we have room on our property for her to do these things. This summer, her grandchildren are enrolled at Camp Valaqua, Mennonite Church Alberta’s year-round facility, and also at Ghost River Rediscovery Camp for indigenous children.
It has been a delight to see Johnson smile and to see glimmers of hope in her eyes. Most of all, she has reminded me that hope is a gift friends can give each other, and that has more value than just writing a cheque.
Kate Janzen attends Foothills Mennonite Church. She met Johnson two years ago when, at the initiative of a church friend, Jeannette Thiessen, Johnson was invited to speak at congregational discussions on how to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Johnson’s very sad story of injustice and racism was a gift for us and made the TRC ‘very real’.”