Recounting residential schools: The tale of Augie Merasty

By in Culture

David Carpenter, once an English professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has since left his position in order to pursue writing, including fiction and nonfiction. His most recenDavid Carpentert work, The Education of Augie Merasty, is a timely discussion of Indigenous history in Canada.

The novella has had great success, receiving several awards including the Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. The story showcases the aftermath of historical residential schooling practices for Indigenous children in Canada and gives a personal perspective from someone who experienced it first hand: Augie Merasty.

This novella is the true story of Merasty’s experiences in residential schooling from age five to 14. However, it wasn’t until later, when one of his colleagues had received a letter, that Carpenter began the journey of telling Merasty’s story.

“In 2001, well after I had quit teaching and I was writing, I was phoned by [a secretary of the U of S English department]. She phoned me up and said ‘There’s a letter and I want you to read it.’ So I came down and read the letter. It was [from] an old trapper up north who had had a traumatic experience back in the 1930s and 40s, in the residential school for nine years,” Carpenter said.

This journey of writing The Education of Augie Merasty proved to be challenging for both Merasty and Carpenter. Merasty wrote out his account of events and sent them to Carpenter. However, this was difficult for Merasty as he was still struggling with the aftereffects of the trauma he endured during his time in residential schooling.

“I could tell that [Merasty] was so deeply and tragically affected by the abuse he suffered there that he just couldn’t stop thinking about it, it had quite literally driven him to drink. Not only was he an intelligent, perceptive and courageous observer of what had happened to him, but also a hopeless alcoholic,” Carpenter said.

These issues caused Merasty to have a very erratic writing schedule as well as making him prone to losing parts of his manuscript at times. However, Mother Nature also intervened to cause the delay of Merasty’s book.

“Once, actually, a bear … broke into a cabin [Merasty] had been trying to build for a period of six or seven years and destroyed a lot of stuff inside and got lots of food and scattered it all over the cabin, and he ate part of the manuscript,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter cited the U of S as a major influence on his writing, including this novella and his previous works.

“I think [the U of S] had a huge impact on me. I think one of the reasons I’ve continued writing here well after my job was over is that I find Saskatchewan really inspiring. I like the sense of a rough edge on life … One of the themes that has struck me throughout many years is the impact of the environment, the impact of the history on my consciousness [and] my imagination,” Carpenter said.

For U of S students whose end goal is to become a published writer, or even for those considering it, Carpenter had some words of advice.

“For much of the time you’re going to be autodidactic, you’re gonna be teaching yourself how to write. The first bit of advice I would say before you even consider taking the master’s theory in writing at the [U of S] is reading your guts out,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter believes readers should pursue their own interests in literature, and advises students to do the same.

“Read very selfishly, which is to say read junk as well as classic literature. Surround yourself with books, not just because David Carpenter said so either, but because if you’re a real writer you can’t help but do that.”

Jack Thompson

Photo: Honor Kevr / Supplied