Alan Kilpatrick, Reference Librarian, Law Society of Saskatchewan Library & Member-at-Large, Saskatchewan Library Association Board
In 2017, the Saskatchewan Library Association (SLA) celebrated 75 years of steadfastly advocating for libraries, culture, and communities in Saskatchewan. To help mark the occasion, the SLA held Saskatchewan’s inaugural provide-wide literacy and reading campaign, One Book One Province (One Book) in March.
One Book encouraged Saskatchewan’s residents to read The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter throughout that month. The memoir, published by the University of Regina Press, describes Merasty’s painful experiences as a student at a residential school in Northern Saskatchewan in the mid-1930s.
Beyond simply promoting literacy in Saskatchewan, One Book’s goal was to encourage residents to learn about and discuss residential schools, Indigenous culture and reconciliation, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. SLA’s intent was to provide “opportunities for residents to become more socially engaged in their community through a shared story.” Libraries across the province were encouraged to host community events about the memoir. In addition, the co-author, David Carpenter, participated in a province-wide reading tour.
Unfortunately, Merasty passed away at the age of 87 mere days before One Book’s launch on March 1. One Book One Province was a fitting tribute to his memory and legacy.
Here, co-author and friend David Carpenter reflects on touring the province in March 2017 to promote the book for One Book One Province, in the days immediately following Merasty’s passing.
A Sad Beautiful Story
One Book One Province Tour of Saskatchewan
David Carpenter, Excerpt courtesy of the University of Regina Press
Joseph A. Merasty and David Carpenter
University of Regina Press
February 27. Saskatoon.
Augie Merasty died this morning. His youngest daughter, Arlene, phoned first, then his older daughter Joanne, then Anne Pennylegion of the Saskatchewan Library Association. They were all stricken by his sudden passing, Arlene perhaps the most. It hit all of us with the weight of unexpected things. I thought Augie had more time left, because even in the throes of cancer, diabetes, alcoholism, and life on the street, even in his eighties, he had always bounced back. Some say he died at eighty-eight, some say eighty-seven. Depends who you ask.
He died around the time that I was packing up a supply of his books in preparation for my One Book One Province tour of Saskatchewan. This tour is taking me to eleven communities: two in Saskatoon, one in Regina, and eight more in mostly rural Saskatchewan. At each venue I will speak about the process of putting together The Education of Augie Merasty, Augie’s memoir of a brutal existence in St. Therese Residential School from 1935 to 1944. The northern junket up to Prince Albert and beyond is now in jeopardy. The original idea was that I would present with Augie and his daughter Arlene. I would talk about the making of the book and Augie and Arlene would take the story into his life as a father, hunter, fisherman, trapper, boxer, jack of all trades, survivor, memoirist. This was going to be the highlight of the tour of the new edition of his book, and we were all up for it. Most exciting of all, I would get to gab with Augie one more time.
Right now I am preparing for my Saskatchewan Augie tour, but without Augie in the world anymore. I’ve already had a warm-up for the tour with a presentation at a Catholic High in Saskatoon, one of two high schools who pulled the book from the curriculum because some students dreaded the possibility of engaging with its dark truths. So I talked with the students about such things as truth and reconciliation, and about the historical connections between the two. A devoted teacher and a nice bunch of teenagers, but a minority of them were probably not ready for a plunge into the cold hard realities of torture, sexual violence and predation. The other school in Saskatoon simply cancelled my visit, probably because of similar fears. They’re studying this book at the venerable girls’ private school in Toronto, Bishop Strachan, but Saskatoon is perhaps a little too close to home for such truths.
If there is a chance for me to act on the need for reconciliation in this country, in this year of reconciliations, this is it. Augie delivered the truth to me in handwritten stories from 2001 to 2009, stories of shocking brutality that came through the re-opened trap-door of his memory. He began with a comforting catalogue of gentle memories of all the brothers, sisters and priests who cared for the children with kindness and love. Then he made for the dark corners of his life at St. Therese Residential School, where he was singled out for torture, sexual assaults and cruelty from about the age of seven until he left the school around age fourteen.
That is the truth. How might this reconciliation work for me? What exactly can I do?
March 8. Prince Albert.
By my count, there are close to two hundred and fifty people in the gym. I did not expect this because the weather is so bad.
Just as the ceremony is about to begin, our elder for the day arrives. I’ve already met her before, Augie’s sister Gertie. She might still be in her seventies, but only now do I realize what a beautiful face she has, a warm smile, a calming presence. To everyone she is Gertie, and no one mentions a last name. A few white teachers and officials from the college are out there, but perhaps ninety per cent of the audience is made up of Cree and Métis students and Indigenous members of the community.
Needless to say, I am thrilled to behold this audience.
I talk for about forty minutes about my symbiotic relationship with Augie. Obviously, he could not have assembled a book like this without me, but just as obviously, I could never come up with this riveting story without Augie. He suffered for it, but he delivered it. His life was not lucky, but our coming together felt lucky to me, this marriage of two different minds made in Heaven—because in 2001, Augie simply dropped out of the sky. I happened to pick up a telephone on the right day, and soon after that, the story began to unfold. Frequently, Augie was hard to work with and impossible to find when I needed him to answer questions and to finish his manuscript. Frequently, I dreamed of chucking the whole project. Only now can I see that, when we had to be, Augie and I were a good team.
I move away from the mic to a warm applause, and Augie’s daughter, Arlene, approaches the mic. Her sister Katherine is up there too. Katherine has just told me about Augie’s favourite park bench, the one on River Street with a view of the big bridge over the North Saskatchewan River. This bridge, she told me, was the one from which her brother fell to his death, and no one could save him. This was the last moment of his life, and Augie sat on his bench and observed it countless times as though he might commune with this last fatal moment.
Arlene Merasty has never had problems standing up to a big audience, be it live or televised or recorded on national radio. She tells stories about her father in front of a hushed audience, and the one I will cherish the most is the story about her dad’s trapline. One winter afternoon, Arlene, her dad, and some other family were relaxing in Arlene’s place in Prince Albert. Augie rose up and declared that he was going to check his trapline. Arlene had no idea what Augie meant, as they were living in the middle of the city. Hours later Augie returned to the house with a pole at the back of his neck suspended over his shoulders. On one side of the pole were three dead rabbits, and three more on the other side of the pole. Augie gutted and cleaned the animals and they all had a great feast.
“What did you do?” Arlene asked her dad. “Raid a pet store?”
“My trapline,” Augie replied.
Augie replied, “The golf course.”
With her memories of her father, Arlene absolutely stole the show. There is lot of love in the hall today.
I took my place at the book table to do some signing, and the line of readers was very long. One of the students in line, perhaps nineteen or twenty, declared, “Mr. Carpenter, I want you to know, we did this book real deep!” Reactions like that to Augie’s story really make me smile. At a time when some educators push books to the bottom of the agenda, it’s wonderful to encounter passionate readers and their teachers. Today they treat Augie’s memoir like a saint’s relic. And the testaments keep on coming all along the line, Cree and Métis readers and their devoted teachers. Today we are all part of a sad beautiful story.
This article was originally published in the 2017 Summer Issue of the Benchers’ Digest. Be sure to check it out for more great articles relating to National Aboriginal Day.