Sask. book about residential school helping author's daughter heal

February 14, 2015 - 9:49am
Arlene Theresa Merasty, daughter of Joseph Auguste Merasty, holds the book that's helped her to heal. Kelly Malone/News talk Radio
Arlene Theresa Merasty, daughter of Joseph Auguste Merasty, holds the book that's helped her to heal. Kelly Malone/News talk Radio

A new Saskatchewan book is small, but its pages hold a large message about the inter-generational trauma left behind for families of  residential school survivors.

"The Education of Augie Merasty" by Joseph Auguste Merasty recalls the author's experience attending St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, Sask. from 1935 to 1944.

Inspired by telling his story to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Joseph began sending dozens of pages to Saskatchewan author David Carpenter. A decade later, Carpenter compiled the book and it was published by the University of Regina Press.

"My dad wanted people to know what happened; the individual tortures that the children endured," Joseph's daughter, Arlene Theresa Merasty said. "He has covered quite a bit of what happened... but that's not even half of it... He explores the levels of humanity as well and he doesn't always put down the nuns and the fathers. He always explores and is always asking 'why this' or 'why that.'"

Joseph struggled with alcoholism, his identity, and homelessness after his years in the residential school. Arlene said he remains mainly on the streets of Prince Albert where he rides the buses to stay warm in the winter. His son froze to death beside him two winters ago.

"He went through 10 whole years of torture, how does a person get over that?... After so many years of torture, degradation, humiliation, changing the way you eat," Arlene said. "He told me writing this book has really been about him wanting others to come forward with their stories. He says that he is beyond counseling and he is too old now to change, what he really wants people to do is change for themselves, and for the better."

Joseph had talked about "the book" for years, Arlene said. When it was finally in her hands, it became clear her father's years of silence and addictions had covered up the experiences held inside those pages.

"I have actually kind of seen what my dad has went through. Some of the punishments that he went through, me and my family went through," Arlene said. "He talks about having big knee caps... because they made him kneel down so many times at night for hours... praying until they fell asleep... Even when they fell asleep they were so tired... and the nuns would go up and hit them... get them up to pray and kneel."

The book also talks about other sexual and physical abuses the children faced. Through a young child's eyes the book asks the basic questions about why children werre left hungry and cold. Through the memories of Joseph, it asks how humanity could let such severe degradation happen to those little children.

For Arlene, the book also leaves an understanding of the inter-generational trauma those experiences caused. She said  the lessons learned in residential school didn't leave Joseph when he walked out of the doors.

"One of my siblings... she was only about three years old. Whenever she was bad my dad would put her on the fridge as punishment. She would sit up there until she learned not to cry or to learn not to do whatever it was that she did. There were quite a few occasions where she actually fell from the top of the fridge," Arlene said, referencing similar punishments in the book. "The capital punishment that they endured really is pushed down to the generations."

Understanding the trauma has allowed Arlene to begin her own healing process. Her father's book was "fundamental" to her understanding her own childhood.

"I have learned why things happened after reading my dad's book," she said, adding there is change on the way.

"My girls, that generation, they are very good. I have two grandchildren and they have a really good life right now... It is not too late to change. It is better to look forward to a brighter future. I've embraced a new way of thinking... where you wake up everyday and say 'I am happy to be alive today. I am happy that my children are healthy...' Even if you don't have much in your life... just waking up everyday breathing is a miracle."

Although Joseph and even Arlene still struggle daily with the residential school memories and lessons left strung through their family stories, Arlene said the books allows them to control their own legacy.
"After reading his book, I was able to say something that I have not said since I was seven years old, which was 'I forgive you dad, and I love you,'" Arlene said with glossy eyes from welling tears.

"You never forget the past, but the very important thing now to do is look forward to the future. We have to get together and heal together... The important bottom line is every story that is told, everybody that comes forward does heal. When you can tell your story, when you can say 'now I know.'"

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