On March 1, hundreds of people gathered at First Nations University of Canada to honor the death and legacy of Joseph Auguste Merasty (Augie), a residential school survivor and author of The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir.
Merasty passed away on Feb. 27 at the age of 87.
Jerri Wood, a member of University of Regina’s senior writing group, came to the event mostly because her friend insisted, but she was intrigued by the speeches that were made in honor of Merasty.
“I have a very powerful sense that I need to know more. I need to listen more and so that was reconfirmed in what I heard tonight. It was inspiring but sobering as well,” said Wood.
“It really speaks to the need, even at my age, to begin the process to support reconciliation,” Wood added.
When the memoir was in the making, Merasty used to tell people that he was writing a book but it was hard for most to believe him because he was a heavy drinker and was sometimes found on the streets.
David Carpenter, co-writer of Merasty’s memoir, referred to Merasty as a “hopeless alcoholic.” He added though that Merasty’s physical and mental states were deeply rooted in the experiences he had in the residential school.
Merasty’s self-esteem and self-image boosted when people found out about his book. “Suddenly everybody showed him efforts that he never really experienced before. And a lot of people who would treat him as the town’s drunk really started to treat him with respect, and he really felt that,” said Carpenter.
“And suddenly Augie goes from the town’s drunk to the town’s celebrity,” Carpenter recalled.
Merasty was five years old when he went to attend the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, Sask., and spend almost a decade there. In his memoir, Merasty recalls the severe punishments, the sexual assaults and the unsuccessful revenge that he and his friends would plot against the staff members.
There is one incident in the memoir Merasty recalls very clearly, which puts into perspective the abuse and trauma that he had faced while attending the residential school.
Merasty was about 11 or 12 years old when he and a friend were made to walk 12 miles into the wild on a very cold winter day in search of two mittens that they had lost. After hours of searching and coming across fresh wolf tracks, the two decided to accept failure and make their way back to the school. When they told Sister St. Mercy, whom Merasty refers to as the meanest of all the sisters, about their failure in locating the mittens, both got 20 straps across each hand.
The memoir is not only an account of the traumatic experiences that Augie went through in residential, but also the aftermath of surviving that trauma.
Carpenter said that Merasty’s own family wasn’t aware of his time in residential school. Only after reading the memoir did Merasty’s family close the distance they had kept from him for years due to his addiction.
Blair Stonechild, a residential school survivor and a professor of Indigenous studies at the First Nations University of Canada, gave a speech in memory of Merasty. He said that survivors often turn to alcohol to deal with their traumatic experiences, adding that emptiness, lack of meaning and lack of spirituality leads survivors to alcoholism. However, Stonechild praised Merasty for completing his mission, even as an alcoholic.
“The elders tell us that everyone is born for a mission and, for Augie, his mission was to tell his story, and he did. Maybe that is why he is gone now because he has fulfilled his mission and now he is on to fulfilling his spiritual mission,” said Stonechild.
In his closing remarks before stepping off the stage, Carpenter said, “When I was a kid, I thought of heroes as athletes or maybe handsome like movie stars. But I think honestly that Augie is the first person I’ve ever met who is a real hero, because the courage it took him to go back to his nightmares and to write his story is extraordinary.”
The University of Regina Press in collaboration with the Saskatchewan Library Association and FNUniv hosted the event to honor the legacy of Augie Merasty.