With the advent of the Truth and Reconciliation Project in Canada, there has been an increase in stories being told about residential schools. Some of these are oral, some have been written down. There is power in stories. There is power in survivors finally getting the chance to speak out loud the atrocities committed agains them and others.
For those unfamiliar with Canadian history, residential schools were schools (usually boarding schools but also day schools) that took Indigenous children from their homes and families. They were forced to attend these schools where they were robbed of their culture, forbidden to speak their own languages, and very often abused physically, sexually, and emotionally. That’s a very brief synopsis but it’s an awful blight on our country’s history and one that has on-going repercussions. And to be clear, this isn’t ancient history. The last residential school closed in 1996. My own community had a residential day school until 1975.
This is Augie Merasty’s story of his time in residential school in Saskatchewan. It’s also the story of others – his cousins and siblings and other children – who aren’t able to tell their own stories. The book isn’t long at 76 pages but it’s detailed and covers quite a bit of ground. Augie focuses primarily on the people. The teachers and members of the Catholic Church who ran the school He shares stories of the brothers and sisters who showed kindness as well as the ones who abused and took advantage of the children in their care.
Merasty began writing down his stories as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Project and in 2001 was connected with David Carpenter when he wanted to publish his stories as a book. For many years after the two corresponded and Merasty periodically sent his writings to Carpenter. For many reasons – some of which are detailed in Carpenter’s introduction – the book never took shape in quite the Merasty envisioned. Here Carpenter has taken the stories he was given and published them in Merasty’s own words. The voice is clear and distinct and seems accurate to Carpenter’s depiction of Merasty in the introduction. Overall, the effect is of an honest and straightforward account of what happened to Augie and others he knew while in residential school.
There is, to my mind, always a question when a white man or woman is telling us the story of an Indigenous person. While I don’t see a reason to doubt Carpenter’s editing or description of Merasty, everything we learn about Augie is through Carpenter, or Carpenter’s edited version of Augie’s words. It’s unclear how much Augie saw or understood of the final product. Carpenter’s experience and connection is probably why this story gets to be as public as it is but I wish we could have a final book that was written and edited and produced by Indigenous voices.