When the Georgia Straight reaches Arlene Merasty in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, she’s just got back from finding her father and making sure he has a place to spend the night.
Merasty located the 85-year-old sitting in an outdoor bus shelter in the -32 C weather.
“I just went looking for him all day—I finally found him,” she tells the Straight by phone. “I took him to a warm place for the night. He’s at my niece’s place, and he’s good for today, and we can just move one day at a time.”
Merasty has been undertaking this daily ritual since she moved back to Prince Albert from La Ronge—searching the streets for her dad, and finding him shelter for the night.
The journey that led Joseph Auguste Merasty, or “Augie” as most people call him, to the streets is detailed in a new book he wrote with Saskatoon-based author David Carpenter.
The Education of Augie Merasty describes his experience as a student at the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing.
The painful memories he details in the book include being served rotten food, being made to kneel on cement for hours as punishment, facing sexual abuse, and physical abuse and injuries that have left him with scars and throbbing headaches decades later.
One night, he recounts that he awoke to horrible pain in his left eye and one of the nuns holding a strap in her hand. He recalls her apologizing to him for injuring his eye after she heard him laughing and talking in his sleep and immediately punished him.
Merasty says her father hopes that people will read the memoir and learn about his experience.
“He wants to tell everybody what he went through,” she says. “He wants others to see—not only aboriginal people, non-aboriginals too. They need to find out what these kids went through.”
More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were placed in government-funded, church-run residential schools, the last of which closed in 1996.
Growing up, Merasty didn’t even know that her father had gone to residential school, she notes. She and her siblings faced some of the same treatment their dad had experienced as a child, like being subjected to the belt as punishment. She has since forgiven her father for what they went through growing up, and she’s hoping her siblings will do the same.
“He was tortured from five to 14,” she says. “How easy is a person going to get over that? Really, if it was me, I don’t know if I’d ever get over it, you know?
“This has stuck with my dad his whole life,” she adds. “He’s still an alcoholic, and that’s the only way he eases the pain these days. He still drinks, and I’ll never be able to stop him. He’s too old now. But he just wants other people to see.”
Merasty’s father is also in treatment for cancer, and is coping with dementia. He often spends the night at the detox facilities at the hospital. The next day, Merasty plans to sit with her father downtown. She’s become concerned about the resources available for the homeless in the city, and wants to advocate for more.
But when she found him in that cold bus shelter earlier in the day, Augie was smiling, she notes.
“Good to see a smile on his face,” she says.
Her dad is happy that his story is out there, she notes.
“He’s always wanted to achieve some level of immortality,” she says. “That’s his book. He goes: ‘if you want to be known in this world, my daughter, you have to either write a book or be an artist of some kind’.”
Merasty adds her father hopes that more aboriginal writers will be inspired to share their residential school experiences.
“He wants the stories to be told more,” she says. “So many ways they tortured these poor kids, back in the day.”
Since the memoir was published, Merasty has been getting a lot of positive feedback from people who say they’re happy this story is being told.
“I’m just hoping the book gets to as many people as it can, and gets the message forward that a lot of aboriginal children suffered,” she says.
“I just want society to know what they went through. And I’m happy—the more people read it, the better.”