The Education of Augie Merasty by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter, University of Regina Press
Augie Merasty was not yet six years old when his father put him in a canoe to begin the journey to the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, Saskatchewan. The year was 1935. They lost about a day of travel time because Augie’s dad shot a moose and caught some fish along the way, and the meat had to be butchered and dried and the fish smoked. Sixty-five years later, writer David Carpenter got a call from the University of Saskatchewan: an “old fellow up north” was looking for some help with his memoir. The Education of Augie Merasty is the result.
It has become well known in Canada that the residential school system, conceived to assimilate First Nations children, was a site of brutal abuse, psychological, physical and sexual. It is also one of the root causes of the loss of First Nations cultures and languages, as well as a great deal of suffering. As time passes more details have emerged: beatings, rapes, a homemade electric chair. But in all the discussion the voices of the survivors, their own words and individual experiences, have been largely absent. Thanks to Augie Merasty’s determination, we have his story now.
The Education of Augie Merasty is a tiny book, just the size of a large postcard, and hardly longer – 110 pages total, forty-five of which are David Carpenter’s introduction and afterword. The cover is an understated but poignant image of a single lost mitten lying on the snow, referring perhaps to the time Merasty, a small child, was sent back out into a blizzard, inadequately dressed, to find a pair of lost mittens which were obviously already buried by blowing snow.
The terrible beatings of small children, disgusting food, sexual abuse and blistering contempt are all here, but in the context of young Merasty’s life at the school they are more affecting than any news report. Augie Merasty’s personality really comes through – his intelligence, his charm, his playfulness and warm heart. Beatings in general are much easier to read about than accounts of a child you have come to know and like as an individual being beaten with the fists of a grown man until he bleeds from the mouth and nose.
Merasty supplies the bigger picture beautifully. In addition to cruel nuns, there were loving nuns. As well as pedophiles and batterers, there were kind priests. Along with beatings and abuse, there were childhood games, sledding in winter, boyish pranks. Not to forgive any of the abuse, but to enlarge the picture of a life, and to emphasize the great resilience of Merasty’s loving heart, a miracle out of so much suffering.
Carpenter’s intro and afterword are important, telling the story of the struggle to get Merasty’s story completed over a span of years in spite of the fact that he lived up north in an isolated cabin with no phone, computer, Internet, or car. All further complicated by his alcoholism, poverty and social disconnection. It is a tribute to Merasty’s commitment that the story got finished at all.
The text as it stands feels slight. Carpenter makes clear how difficult it was to pull together the material, and it must have been a herculean effort on Merasty’s part to revisit such trauma. But there is still not enough here for a whole satisfying book. Another short memoir, more historical context, an account by one of Merasty’s family members of how his residential school experiences affected him later in life – any number of options might have amplified this text. As it is, Merasty’s story feels too lightweight, doing a disservice to an important addition to Canadians’ knowledge of our common history.
Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, appeared from Groundwood Books; she also edited Salut King Kong: New English Writing from Quebec from Véhicule Press. She is currently coordinating the Atwater Library’s Atwater Writers Exhibition.