Carving a life from the ashes

A shack destroyed by fire was a loss estimated at $11,000, according to firefighters. For Shawn Johnnie, it was everything he had in life, including a fresh start.

A shack destroyed by fire was a loss estimated at $11,000, according to firefighters.

For Shawn Johnnie, it was everything he had in life, including a fresh start.

During the last three years Johnnie has been staying in a camper on Kwanlin Dun First Nation land recognized as his grandmother’s, down Long Lake Road.

The vacant lot, littered with a few abandoned cars, has a beautiful view of the Yukon River and looks directly at Two Mile and Haeckel hills, with all of downtown Whitehorse in between.

Johnnie planned a small carving studio there.

And it was almost finished. It just needed drywall.

On Wednesday afternoon, at around 3:20 p.m., the structure burned to the ground.

Johnnie lost everything, including most of his carving tools.

“Carving keeps me happy, sober and out of trouble,” he says. “I did have a few points of my life when I was mixed up pretty bad. I’m trying to get myself back on my feet.”

The art, sculpted from moose antler and sheep horn, used to be just a high school hobby until this past year when Johnnie started doing it more seriously, making a living off of it and saving up to build this studio, he says.

“We just felt like he needed something real to give him a boost in life and really go,” says Chris Stevens, one of the friends who dedicated much of his Christmas holiday to helping Johnnie build the structure.

Pooling their money, tools and donations of lumber and equipment, the building took shape.

But a donated stove ended it all.

“I had this stove that we got secondhand,” says Johnnie, adding it was an oil-drip stove that he wasn’t familiar with.

“I thought it was alright, but it was such an old stove that, before I knew it, I looked over and I guess the bottom of the stove had burnt out and the fuel had spilled on the ground.”

“I tried to kick off the stovepipe so I could pull out the stove and save the building, but I never had enough time.”

Johnnie ran to neighbour Anne Bradley’s house to call the fire department. They were already on their way.

The flames were visible from Two Mile Hill.

“I was kind of lucky, though, that it happened now and not sometime when I was sleeping or something,” says Johnnie.

As disappointing as the loss is, he’s trying to remain positive.

“He’s not very rich – he carves for a living,” says Stevens. “It’s only been the last year this guy’s tried to change his life around. “He’s had nothing but terrible things happen.”

But knowing the land is there for him helps, says Johnnie.

“I can always start over and that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” he says. “Build a nice place there. “I just want to thank the friends and family that helped me get this far.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

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