One day, several years ago, Arlene Merasty learned her father was writing a book. This was surprising news; her father was not an author, nor had he ever expressed any desire to write before. The book was about his time in a native residential school, he told her, a period of his life he'd always been guarded about. He'd been inspired to write after the Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation and of the Exploratory Dialogues took place in the late 1990s. They were living together in Prince Albert, Sask., at the time, and she'd sometimes see him at the kitchen table, writing in his neat longhand, or hear him down in the basement, working away. "He'd write, write and write, and he kept sending his papers to David Carpenter," she says, referring to the acclaimed Saskatchewan author. "I didn't really know if it was true … because it was hard to tell with my dad whether he's telling the truth or not."
Even after she moved away from Prince Albert in 2006, she regularly received mail at her old house. One afternoon, stopping by her former home, she came across a letter addressed to her father. It was from David Carpenter. It turned out her father had been writing a book after all.
A collection of handwritten letters transformed into a newly published book, The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir might be one of the most important titles to be published this spring, written by one of the year's most unlikely authors: an 86-year-old Cree man who lives on the streets of Prince Albert, fighting not only the bottle, but also prostate cancer and dementia. It's a story of the near-decade he spent at St. Therese Residential School and the "utter cruelty" he both witnessed and suffered. But more than that, it's a story of resilience and perseverance – the tale of a man not only haunted by his past, but haunted by the fundamental need to tell his own story.
It was a curious phone call that David Carpenter received one day in the spring of 2001. The caller was a secretary in the English department at the University of Saskatchewan, where Carpenter used to teach. They had recently received a letter, addressed to "the Dean of the University of Saskatchewan," from a man who identified himself as "a retired fisherman and trapper and jack of all trades." The letter writer was looking for someone "who has a good command of the English language" to help with his memoirs. Ideally, it would be someone willing to travel north to his cabin in Birch Portage, on the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation Reserve in central Saskatchewan, for a couple of weeks during the upcoming summer and tape his life story – specifically his time as a residential-school student – then put it to paper. In lieu of payment, which would be sorted out at a later date, the lucky co-author would "enjoy the finest fishing in all of" the province. ("I found out in subsequent communications that there was no cabin to stay at," says Carpenter, on the phone from British Columbia. "It hadn't been finished, and there was no electricity.") While he at first turned down the request – he was busy with his own writing projects – Carpenter eventually agreed to help the man, who'd signed the letter Joseph A. Merasty, share his story with the world. "I suppose I'm a sucker for a hard-luck story," Carpenter says. "I think writers often are."
Letters from the man Carpenter came to know as Augie soon began to trickle in – some just a few pages, some thousands of words long. Carpenter had read a lot about the history and legacy of Canada's residential-school system, which was operational from the late 19th to the late 20th century and ensnared an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children, but never in such graphic, or heartfelt, detail.
"The more stories I got from him, the more intrigued with it I became," he says. These letters also revealed "an extraordinary spirit. You could tell that his education was limited, his capacity to write was limited, but you could also see that he was compelled to tell a story." Over the next eight years, Carpenter and Merasty went back and forth, by letter, by phone and occasionally in person, with Carpenter piecing the stories together into a coherent narrative.
"He thought he'd wasted his life," Carpenter says, "and he thought if only he could finish this book, and I could help him, then that would be his immortality."
After sending one last letter in March, 2009, which promised that 65 more pages of work were forthcoming, Augie Merasty vanished. Carpenter's letters went unanswered. Eventually, he put the manuscript aside and returned to his own work. Merasty had disappeared for long stretches of time in the past, but this time Carpenter felt his co-writer was gone for good.
Last June, at a literary conference, Carpenter was introduced to Bruce Walsh, the publisher of University of Regina Press. Walsh, a veteran of the Toronto publishing scene, had long admired Carpenter's work, and asked if he had any projects looking for a home. Carpenter demurred, at first, but then recalled Merasty's manuscript, which he hadn't looked at in years. Intrigued by the subject matter, Walsh offered to read it; two days later, he agreed to publish it.
There was a slight problem: Merasty had to sign the book contract in order for it to be published. Carpenter, who'd learned the previous November that Merasty was in fact still alive, began reaching out to his contacts in Prince Albert in an attempt to track him down. When that failed, Carpenter began driving the 140 kilometres from Saskatoon, where he was then living, to Prince Albert in order to search for his old pen pal himself. There were occasional sightings, rumours of the man, but Merasty remained elusive. Eventually, Carpenter was told to contact a specific detox centre Merasty was said to frequent. He called early one morning, and the woman on the phone told him he was there.
"It was as if he came back from the dead," Carpenter says.
Carpenter drove up to Prince Albert the following month. Merasty signed the contract, and, less than a year later, 3,500 copies of the book will soon be available at stores across Canada.
"I've published a lot of books in my life," Walsh says. "But I think this is one of the most important books that's ever come across my desk."
Over the phone, Augie Merasty's voice is grizzled, raw, and he complains he doesn't hear too well. This is the second time we've spoken in the past week. He doesn't always understand the questions, and often mumbles his answers, but there are moments of clarity, too. He's been in the hospital, he tells me. "I'm not well at all. I've got a bad cold. I got lung problems. I can't stay out in the cold, otherwise I'll kick the bucket, maybe. Anyways, what about the book?"
The Education of Augie Merasty is a small book – a little more than 100 pages in all. "I started writing quite a few years back," he says, and wrote it "a little at a time." He lost a lot of material over the years – he told Carpenter "hundreds of pages" were stolen, and he claims a black bear ate part of his manuscript – and, by the sound of his life post-residential school, he could write several more volumes. He was a fisherman and a trapper and a hunter, he worked for the prison in Prince Albert and security for the Edmonton Eskimos. He was a boxer, too, mostly a lightweight. ("I was pretty good," he says, a hint of pride in his voice. "When I got out of school, especially when I was in big cities like Flin Flon and Winnipeg and Lynn Lake – all over the north – I had to defend myself.") He and his wife, Agnes, who died in 2004, had 11 children, seven of whom are still alive. (One of his sons froze to death on the streets; Merasty was with him when it happened.) "There's a lot of things I didn't write about that happened," he says. "If I have time, if I live that long, I'll have more things to write about."
His book concentrates on the years between 1935 and 1944, when he attended residential school in Sturgeon Landing, on the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. "I started going to school when I was 5 1/2," he says. "I was supposed to be 6, I think, but my old man put me into school early."
The book begins with Merasty's father transporting him and his siblings to the school by canoe, a journey of several days, fighting blackflies and rapids along the way. He describes a vibrant landscape "teeming with northern wildlife," including bull moose and fish so abundant they are scooped from waterfalls with ease. Perhaps most surprising is that he devotes the early part of the book to those teachers and school officials who were kind to him: the "immaculately dressed" Father Bernard Pommier; Father Aquinas Merton, "the hardest-working man that I have ever known."
This childhood innocence is soon stripped away as Merasty recalls the sadistic punishment and abuse inflicted on him and his fellow students by the likes of Brer Lepeigne (ominously pronounced Le Pain, whom he writes is "the one human that I would dislike for the rest of my school term, if not for the rest of my life") and the perversely named Sisters St. Mercy and St. Joy. The book's cover is a single blue-grey mitten, a reference to the time he and another boy were forced to walk 20 miles in subzero weather simply because they'd each lost a mitten; they got the strap when they came back to the school empty-handed.
"They'll have to read the whole thing to know the real story," he says. "The truth and nothing but the truth. I didn't exaggerate what I suffered. I put all that in there. The Christian people who tortured us for so many years – they'll read about them. They're supposed to be holier-than-thou, going to communion and confession every day, and yet they made us suffer because we were Indians."
"I want them" – readers – "to know what really happened in those schools," he told me on an earlier occasion. "That was one of the basic reasons I wrote that book … so it won't happen again."
For the longest time, no one believed Merasty when he said he was writing a book. Now, not only has he "accomplished his life's work," as Walsh puts it, but the publication of The Education of Augie Merasty has allowed Arlene Merasty and her siblings to understand their father in new ways.
"I just never knew why he did the things he did until I read the whole book," she says. "It's not something somebody can get through easily. Ten years of torture, when you're just a kid and you're developing … I don't think that would be an easy thing to get through at all, no matter how many counselling sessions a person went to." Instead, Merasty found solace in alcohol. "He says he'll never change," she says. "He'll never be able to quit now – he's too old. I know people who quit drinking, [but] he'd be dead if he quit drinking in two weeks. He can't stop now. He drowns his sorrows in the bottle. He still thinks about a lot of things."
There are good days and bad days, she says. It was a good day when she showed her father a finished copy of the book, his name embossed on the cover in gold.
"I gave it to him and he held it in his hands," she says. "I took some pictures, and he smiled as he [was] looking at it. He looked at the back cover first, and he seen his portrait there. It was kind of funny because he said, 'I don't like the way this portrait looks. I look so old!' But he just laughed about it. He loves to hold the book in his hands. Something that he's done. He almost feels at peace, I guess you'd say."