The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir
By Joseph Auguste Merasty, with David Carpenter
University of Regina Press, 2015
This memoir is many things—short yet powerful, anecdotal and detailed, courageous and sad, unsettling and important.
Joseph Auguste (Augie) Merasty’s memories of his nine years as a Cree child attending St. Therese residential school in Sturgeon Landing, Sask., are book-ended by a 29-page introduction and an eight-page afterword. This leaves, on balance, 64 pages for the unmistakable voice of Augie Merasty to shine through.
From ages 5 to 14, Augie attended St. Therese residential school, a Roman Catholic Mission school, as did various family members. His experience is intensely personal and universally echoes stories given throughout the six-year period of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2009-2015).
Augie’s gimlet-eyed gaze of his time at St. Therese presents the banal (the same substandard food, every day) with the harrowing (daily beatings, strappings, head injuries and sexual abuse), and the derisive (clear renderings of individual cruelties) with the sympathetic (the humane gestures of other staff).
When Augie was around 11 years old, the loss of a mitten resulted in a forced walk across a lake for 20 miles in -40 F blowing snow. The mitten was not found and he was strapped. The mitten on the book’s cover singularly reflects this awful example of the severe penalties incurred for minor offences.
Daily activities—baking, sewing, nursing, animal husbandry, hauling wood—largely depended on the labour of students and added to the dismal quality of education received from Augie’s teachers, including a Nazi sympathizer and those with firm convictions of European superiority.
Augie’s questions haunt us: “Why wasn’t the Bishop’s house ever told about these things?” He responds to his own question: “…they [priests, nuns] were respected with unshakeable reverence, especially by my parents, who were in my view, then and now, religious fanatics. They naturally believed that whatever was done to us, if we were properly disciplined, was for our own spiritual good.”
Unwaveringly, he calls out the church on its hypocrisy. “I know they never practiced what they preached, not one iota.” Augie was released from the daily torment of residential school in 1945 with his family’s move to Deep Bay, a place abundant with lake and brown trout, and reindeer, too. Reconnecting with and living on the land became part of his healing journey.
Fast forward 60 years, and Augie is a retired trapper in northern Saskatchewan, determined to produce his memoirs. He approached the University of Saskatchewan for assistance and soon was in contact with English professor and author, David Carpenter. Over eight years, they danced and dodged their way toward the publication of Augie’s memoirs. Throughout this time, the impact of colonialism and the effects of childhood abuse prevented Augie from recovering his life “even to this day,” he writes. He struggled with alcohol, moved to Prince Albert and became homeless.
Augie Merasty’s memoirs witness to his fierce vision and courage. Out of respect for all survivors and a desire for reconciliation, we read and learn.
Henriette Thompson is the former director, public witness for social and ecological justice, Anglican Church of Canada.