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The Education of Augie Merasty

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In 2001, Augie Merasty, a retired Cree trapper in his early 70s, wrote a letter to the dean of the University of Saskatchewan. He wanted help with a memoir he was working on. More specifically, he wanted an outdoorsy person who enjoyed fishing, someone who had a tape recorder and a good command of the English language, to come to his cabin in the bush and record the stories of what he and his schoolmates had experienced at Ste. Thérèse Residential School. Augie’s request was passed on to David Carpenter, a former English professor, who had left teaching to become a full-time writer. As it turned out, Augie didn’t have a cabin at all. He sometimes lived with his daughter in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, but, consumed by alcoholism, he spent most of his later years homeless and on the streets. When Carpenter first spoke with him, he told Augie he could only be helpful if the memories were written down. Over the next several years, Augie sent his notes and stories in batches. All were written in his distinctive, flowing cursive. In the end, Carpenter had a total of about about 75 pages.

Born in 1930, Merasty, like thousands of young aboriginal kids, had been forced into a residential school run by the Catholic Church. (The Anglican, Presbyterian, and United churches also ran Indian schools in Canada).  As The Report on the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples notes, the first of what would become a network of schools was opened in 1849 in Ontario: “Church and government leaders had come to the conclusion that the problem (as they saw it) of Aboriginal independence and 'savagery' could be solved by taking children from their families at an early age and instilling the ways of the dominant society during eight or nine years of residential schooling far from home.” These institutions stayed open for over 150 years. Augie Merasty spent almost a decade at one located on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. From age five to age fourteen, he lived at Ste. Thérèse Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, about 300 miles (500 km) east of Prince Albert. At the time he first contacted the University of Saskatchewan, Augie had recently written testimony for the Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an organization founded in the 1990s “with a mandate of documenting the history and impacts of the residential school system.”

In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2017,  Augie’s co-author, David Carpenter, acknowledged the challenge in taking the “tatters of stories that sometimes had no ending to them” and putting them “all together in a sequence” while “try[ing] as hard as possible to preserve Augie's voice.” Augie’s education and capacity to write were limited, Carpenter said, but he had “a great storyteller's voice. And I didn't want to correct his English” and make him sound like someone other than himself.  “I would only change the words on the page if he contradicted himself or if his limited ability with English obscured the meaning of what he was trying to get at." Carpenter fact-checked details with people who knew Augie and was reassured “that the core of the story, what happened to him at the school, was absolutely true." Names of people and places were changed to protect the identities of individuals and their families.

Carpenter has done a remarkable job organizing Merasty’s material. The memoir begins, quite surprisingly, with Augie’s recollections of those religious fathers, brothers, and nuns who showed kindness to the children. There was his grade-one teacher, Sister St. Alphonse, “one of the kindest and most loving persons in that institution,” who played games with the boys. She cried when administering the mildest corporal punishment: taps of a ruler to the hands of disobedient boys. Sister St. Famille, the school’s baker, who knew only a few words of English, gave the kids something they never received at mealtimes: small, round loaves of bannock bread. “Big Brother Beauville,” who drove the team of horses and worked in the barn, was another “good guy,” never saying  a mean word to any of the boys. In fact, they prayed for him after he was injured by a horse and required two months’ hospitalization in The Pas, some 40 miles away.

Before the darkest memories of abuse are presented by the memoirist, he tells of other staff at Ste. Thérèse—not the good, the kind, and the jolly, but those whose failings Augie could nevertheless regard with some degree of warmth, humour, and even compassion. About these people, he observes:  “They were all human beings, and they all had human feelings and weaknesses.” Take Brother Languir, for example: He’d come from Montreal and was teased by the older boys for his unfortunate, long chin. Languir had previously read some history about what Indians had done to whites, and he lived in fear of the boys at the school, regarding them as brutal savages. Not surprisingly, the kids played jokes on him, surrounding and poking him until he would suddenly burst from the circle, crying out and “running like the devil was after him.” Both Brother Languir and William “Scotty” Cameron, a Scottish bachelor employed by the school, also experienced the misfortune of unrequited love. They pined for beautiful Métis girls who were entirely beyond their reach.

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission website, “The policy behind the government-funded, church-run schools attempted to ‘kill the Indian in the child’.” Merasty’s memoir makes clear that notions of racial superiority certainly fuelled those who worked at Ste. Thérèse. About his vile chief tormenter, Merasty observes: “Brother Lepeigne was a man dedicated to preserving the image of the Superiority of the Semi-Super Race of Whiteman over Indian, like the German Super Race tried to establish during the time of Hitler’s regime. As I look back, what was happening at the school was basically the same thing except on a smaller scale with the same principles.”

The hypocrisy and toxicity of religion are regularly commented on by Merasty. He writes that when Bishop Lajeunesse visited the school, the children were dressed in their best clothing, made to perform concerts, and served food that was actually, and uncharacteristically, edible: beef stew, for example. However, during such visits the kids were also made to listen to the bishop hold forth about “how lucky we were to be looked after in such a school . . .  and [how] we should be thankful to God and the administration for such blessings.” 

Merasty’s recollections are occasionally punctuated with a kind of astonishment that the bishop was never told about the terrible abuses so many of the children endured—in particular, Brother Lepeigne’s method of securing the silence of seven boys he had molested. For years, Lepeigne engaged in daily, ritual beatings of the boys, using a corrugated hose to whip them as they lay on their dormitory beds. Augie, one of the seven, estimated he’d received 500 to 600 of these beatings in his time at the school. Sister St. Mercy, “the meanest of all the nuns”—“I can’t say enough to vilify her name,” he writes— forced Augie and a friend to walk miles in sub-zero weather to retrieve lost mitts. When the boys returned without the mittens, she strapped them 20 times on each hand. Sister St. Mercy also used her strap on Augie’s face one night, damaging his left eye. All he’d been doing was talking and laughing in his sleep. She regularly made him and other boys kneel for hours on cold cement floors after the other children had gone to bed, and she even burned his hand during a lecture on disobedience so he’d know what the fires of hell felt like. Sister St. Mercy and her disciple, Sister St. Joy, “really enjoyed causing pain and other kinds of suffering as punishment for the smallest infractions.”

Augie’s observation, “I always wondered why our keepers and teachers talked about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and all the love they had for mankind [ . . . ] they never practiced what they preached, not one iota,” is the understatement of the century. It was his view that anyone who belonged to the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate was “considered to be infallible . . .  respected with unshakeable reverence, especially by my parents.” Even worse than the hypocrisy and the blind, undeserved respect, however, was the culture of silence. “If any of our teachers ever claimed that there was no evidence of sodomy in the school, they were lying. There is no doubt that these things were forced upon many of us at St. Therese in those days.”

Merasty left Ste. Thérèse when he was 14. He felt as though he’d been sprung from prison. He writes that the hard lessons he learned there ensured that no one would ever again abuse him. However, what he’d experienced—endured—left him tremendously vulnerable to substance abuse. David Carpenter, who was instrumental in getting Augie’s powerful memoir published, acknowledges that “Augie was a nightmare of a father and a husband. He was a drunk, he was a sinner. And yet to me he feels like a real hero. A hero and a martyr. . . I think what was martyred there (at the residential school) was his innocence. . .  yet because he got his story out and thousands of people are reading his story now, it’s almost as though there’s a bit of redemption at the end of his life.”

The Education of Augie Merasty is a tiny book, only 76 pages long and a mere 4 ½ inches by 7 inches in size. It is an important historical document about “the abuse and terror in the lives of Indian children.” The testimony it delivers—in natural, unembellished language—is incredibly powerful.
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(I received an ARC from the NETGALLEY in exchange for an honest review.)
(Not On Blog)

I picked this book up at the library as I have always been interested in knowing more about Aboriginal culture.  Growing up in Canada, we did hear about Residential schools and the horrors behind it.  It was not long in the history that this happened, and like other race and cultural atrocities it seems unimaginable that this is reality.  This is a really short book, and that was one of the reasons I did not give this book a higher rating. I felt like you got a snippet of a story and are longing to know more context.  It feels like a found diary.  

What worked for me was that it was told by a survivor and that it is such an important story to share.  You can't put a rating on an experience, but despite this being a short book, the impact is vast.  It is not an easy read...and that is a great thing as it does make you uncomfortable in a good way.  You should be upset over what Augie and his peers went through.
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I always feel compelled to read stories about people who have been treated wrong. If I had something of a terrible magnitude happen to me, I would want someone to hear my story, so I listen to all of the stories I can. I think reading about tragedies and misdeeds also helps make one a better human by pushing them to think about these travesties and hopefully make them more empathetic to others. After all, we never know what someone else may be going through. 

Augie's story was an interesting one. I guess going into the book I expected more meat to the bones, and found that most of the actual account of what happened was just a small snippet in the grande scheme of things. The intro and conclusion were much longer than the actual story. I understand the need for the back story, I guess I just wish there was more to Augie's actual account. As a learning tool within  the Canadian school system though, I feel like this will be a great way to teach about racism and injustice. I hope Augie's story reaches as many people as possible.
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