The painter Kathie Bird was working in a second-floor studio in the Prince Albert Arts Centre, one day in the summer of 2013, when, gazing out the window, she spotted a man sitting on a bench in the small park below. "He looked interesting," Ms. Bird recalled the other day, and therefore the perfect subject for a portrait. She grabbed her camera and notebook and raced downstairs to introduce herself.
"I asked him who he is, and his first response was, 'I am a writer.'"
His name was Augie Merasty and he was a homeless octogenarian and a fixture on the streets of the central Saskatchewan city of 35,000. People would spot him passing the afternoon in a park, or sitting along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, which winds through the centre of the city, and which was Mr. Merasty's favourite hangout. As Ms. Bird snapped photographs and sketched his likeness, Mr. Merasty told her about his life, stories both incredible and heartrending, including his time in a residential school.
"He talked and talked about talked," Ms. Bird said. He also mentioned he had plans for all his tales: "He said, "I write stories and I give them to a fellow who's putting them into a book.'" Ms. Bird, who has a background in social work and working with the homeless, wasn't sure what to believe. "You come across this a lot with street people – they've got stories, and you don't know whether those stories are true or not."
In this case, as Ms. Bird discovered a short time later, Mr. Merasty was telling the truth. The Education of Augie Merasty, published in the spring of 2015 by the University of Regina Press, helped Canadians come to better understand one of the most traumatic and shameful episodes in the country's history. It was a national bestseller, was nominated for several literary awards and was recently chosen for Saskatchewan's inaugural One Book One Province reading initiative, not long before Mr. Merasty died in a Prince Albert nursing home, on Feb. 27. He was 87 years old.
"The elders tell us that everyone is born for a mission and, for Augie, his mission was to tell his story, and he did," said Blair Stonechild, who teaches Indigenous Studies at the First Nations University of Canada, in a speech during an event on March 1 in honour of Mr. Merasty's life and work, as reported by the University of Regina's School of Journalism, which published an article about the event on its website. "Maybe that is why he is gone now because he has fulfilled his mission and now he is on to fulfilling his spiritual mission."
Joseph Auguste Merasty was born on Jan. 6, 1930, in Sturgeon Landing, a village on the border of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. He returned here when he was just "five years and eight months old" to attend the St. Therese Residential School, which opened in 1927. (His brother, Peter, and his sisters, Annie and Jeanette, as well as a dozen uncles and aunts, were also sent to the school that first year.) The majority of his slim memoirs, under 100 pages, focuses on his time at the school, where he was subject to physical, mental and sexual violence by some of the school's instructors. He recounts being made to kneel on the school's "cold cement floor" for hours at a time. ("Is that why I have such large kneecaps?" he wonders.) He was thrown down a flight of stairs, and beaten with a garden hose. ("I figure I got at least 500 to 600 beatings with that hose.") He was also forced, under threat of violence, to sexually satisfy both priests and nuns. ("He held his hand over my mouth and almost choked me with his other hand and told me he would give me a beating with the three-foot garden hose if I ever told anyone.") The book, he told me when I first interviewed him, in 2015, was "the truth and nothing but the truth. I didn't exaggerate what I suffered." It is a catalogue of unimaginable horrors.
Yet the book was also an almost superhuman act of forgiveness; while Mr. Merasty does not sugar-coat the evils inflicted on him and other students by the likes of Sister St. Mercy and Brother Lepeigne – whom he described in the book as "one of the worst human beings I have ever known about, except maybe Hitler" – he also took time to reflect on the people who showed him kindness during an otherwise intolerable period of his life.
"I sincerely hope that what I have related here will have some impact," he wrote, "so all that has happened in our school, and other schools in all parts of Canada – the abuse and terror in the lives of Indian children – does not occur ever again."
His life after St. Therese, which he left in 1944, is more difficult to pin down. When he was still a teenager, he married Agnes Morin, a few years his junior. Their first child, Ralph, was born in 1950, and altogether they had 11 children, seven of whom are still alive. He was a "pretty good" boxer, fighting as a lightweight and a middleweight, his interest in the sport arising partly out of a desire for self-preservation. Said Mr. Merasty in 2015: "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."
His training also led to a degree of vengeance; a few years after leaving St. Therese, Mr. Merasty and a friend who'd also suffered at the hands of Brother Lepeigne ran into their old teacher in a rooming house in The Pas. They made him think they were going to kill him until he dropped to his knees and begged for mercy.
Perhaps it's no surprise that Mr. Merasty spent a lot of years working as a security guard. The family moved to Edmonton, where he worked security for the Eskimos, and later Calgary. He was living there when, in the late seventies, his marriage ended and his wife, Agnes, and the rest of his family moved to La Ronge, Sask. (Mr. Merasty and Agnes, who died in 2004, never legally separated.)
"He was a really tough man to live with," said his daughter Arlene Merasty. "I wouldn't doubt that my dad actually has a couple other kids out there, because he was really promiscuous. My mom caught him cheating quite a few times."
Her father remained behind in Calgary for another year or so, then followed the family east. "He missed us, I guess. My mom didn't miss him too much." He worked as a taxi driver in La Ronge, then moved to Prince Albert, where he lived for the rest of his life.
According to Arlene, her father started living on the streets in his 60s. "People would take him in, here and there," but mostly he preferred to be on his own. "He'd come and stay a day or two and that would be it – he'd be gone again," said Arlene, who left Prince Albert in 2006, though lives there once again. "I'd give him heck – 'Please don't drink all the time' – so he'd leave so he could drink. He didn't want me saying anything to him."
It was around this time, inspired by the Working Group on Truth and Reconciliation and the Exploratory Dialogues, which had just taken place, that he decided to share his story, like others had done. He'd sit at Arlene's kitchen table, or down in the basement, or he'd go up to his camp in Birch Portage – where he lost a chunk of his manuscript, he often claimed, to a hungry bear – and work on his memoirs. "He'd have his empty pages, and he'd just sit there and write," Arlene said. "Once in a while I'd come across papers, and I'd see a story." This was how she first learned her father had been a residential-school survivor.
The book's path to publication was, much like Mr. Merasty's life, not easy. Every so often, he'd gather what he'd written, in "sprawling but immaculate handwriting," and mail it to David Carpenter, the noted Saskatchewan author, who first heard of Mr. Merasty in the spring of 2001, when he received a call from a secretary in the University of Saskatchewan's English department, where he had once taught. The department had received a letter from a man seeking someone with "good command of the English language" to help write his memoirs. Mr. Carpenter agreed to help, and they spent much of the following decade collaborating on the book – a sometimes-frustrating experience, at least for Mr. Carpenter.
"It was a nightmare, some of the time, at least," Mr. Carpenter recalled with a laugh. "He was irrepressible and determined to get his story out there. Because at least, in his mid-70s, he found the courage to out himself as a victim of sexual violence. He wouldn't take no for an answer. I really admired him, while at the same time finding him a pain in the ass."
The letters stopped, suddenly, in March, 2009. Mr. Merasty had disappeared before, but as the months turned into years, and Mr. Carpenter still heard nothing from his pen pal, he put the manuscript away. In June, 2014, Mr. Carpenter attended an academic conference where he met Bruce Walsh, the publisher of the University of Regina Press. When Mr. Walsh asked Mr. Carpenter if he had any non-fiction book projects in the works, Mr. Carpenter remembered Mr. Merasty's manuscript. Ten months later, after he tracked down Mr. Merasty on the streets of Prince Albert, The Education of Augie Merasty was published.
"He achieved his life objective by telling this story," Mr. Walsh said. "But what really breaks my heart is the fact that, because of this horrific experience, he was only able to write one book. … He might have been celebrated as one of our great writers. I think his writing is really quite spectacular – his clarity of thinking, his narrative, the simple use of language. It's so evocative."
The book was featured in media outlets across the country, from The Globe and Mail to the CBC, and last year it was nominated for a pair of Saskatchewan Book Awards. The ceremony was held in Regina, and more than a dozen family members accompanied Mr. Merasty to the gala.
"All night long, the literati of Saskatchewan, and the power brokers of Saskatchewan went up to him and paid homage to him and treated him with the respect that he deserved, and that he had earned," Mr. Walsh said. "It was a glorious thing."
"It was probably the first time he realized how big his book was actually getting," Arlene said. "He was always humble. He was just happy he had a book out. 'I am a writer,' he would say. He was basically happy. Every time we saw him he mentioned his book and said, 'Where's my money? I'm supposed to get $20 for every book we sell!'"
A new edition of the book was just published, to coincide with the Saskatchewan Library Association's One Book One Province initiative, which includes a postcript from Mr. Carpenter detailing how Mr. Merasty's life had changed in the past two years. The dust jacket features the portrait of Mr. Merasty that Ms. Bird painted before the book was published, when he was still living on the streets of Prince Albert.
It's called I Am a Writer.
Augie Merasty leaves his seven children, many grandchildren and a large extended family.