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Inside a Canadian Residential School for Indigenous Children

Canadians were shocked to discover 200 unmarked graves of dead Indigenous children near Kamloops in British Columbia, as spring began to unfold across the nation. More grizzly discoveries would continue across the country tied to the nation’s history between 1881 and 1996 of forcing more than 150,000 Indigenous children to attend residential schools that were rife with abuse. The number of suspected corpses is now high, with most being children. It felt like all of Canada was being summoned for a mass exhumation when the news broke, with each headline announcing unmarked gravesites. Doubtless, the people most deeply traumatized by this nightmare were First Nations and Métis, but many of us in all walks of life have still not awakened from this nightmare. These schools were mostly Catholic-run and operated with impunity for so many years. This is how it could have happened.

Joseph Auguste Merasty, a laborer, taxi driver and security guard, was a boxer. He also worked as a trapper, hunter, fishing man, town drunk, visual painter, and memoirist. This is his memoir about life in these schools and the abuse he suffered. Augie Merasty and the Education of Augie: An Memoir from a Residential School Published in 2015. This excerpt reveals more about the experiences Merasty had while attending St. Therese Residential School in Saskatchewan (Canada) from 1935-1944. — David Carpenter, editor of The Augie Merasty’s Education

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Sturgeon Landing was where I was born. Father Aquinas Merton was my priest and also principal of St. Therese residential school from 1927 to the time it was established. My brother Peter and two of my sisters were among the first to enter the school. Annie and Jeanette are the names of my sister. In its inaugural year, the school had six aunts and six uncles.

I was told what happened by all those aunts and uncles and sisters, as well as cousins and uncles from different villages. When we went back to school eight years later they told us the same stories, good and bad. It is safe to presume that they spoke the truth.

It was a joy to go on long walks miles from school and have picnics at either the beach or the rapids north. The enclosed playground was so peaceful. We had to stay in the backyard, which was enclosed by a barbed-wire fence. It was like being released from prison.

I really can’t recall just how many times I was made to pay for minor offences. I was once made to walk about twenty miles in –40°F weather with a fellow student, Abner Joseph, back to where we walked the day before, across the big lake with a strong wind blowing. I imagine the wind chill factor was about –60°F. We only lost one mitten each. Because we were eleven years or twelve, our nerves were high and we felt scared. The wind and snow covered every possible mitten, so we were very nervous and scared. This was January 1941. It was Sister St. Mercy who was the most cruel of nuns and forced us to trek in this terrible weather. We returned empty-handed. The strap was given to us, with twenty strokes each.

For punishment, we would sometimes be made to stand on the concrete floor between 8:30 and midnight. Before Sister Mercy arrived or her coworker, Sister Joy sent Sister Joy upstairs to remind us that we needed to get up. After that, we were awakened at a reasonable hour to attend church. We were often awakened around 7:30 in the morning, whether we liked it or not. We used only salt for toothpaste, and our sister had a small saucer. Salt, something we didn’t even get to use at mealtime. The horses and cows could get all the food they desired in their fields, however.

For the most part, they enjoyed inflicting pain on others as punishment. Their position as masters of an inferior race of creatures (Indians), made them paranoid.

“Indians from the bush, what can you expect?” was Sister Mercy’s favourite phrase.

They wanted to prove who was the superior. No rule, no order should be broken. They wanted us to understand that this all was in our best interests and God’s will. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the fathers of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), and their order of brothers and sisters were, to a certain degree, servants of God. Therefore, we should accept every punishment. In God’s eyes, disobedience is a sin.

We ate porridge made from rotten eggs and bread as hard as cardboard every morning for breakfast. We always watched an impeccably white-clothed cart eight feet long being wheeled to the Fathers’ and Brothers’ dining room. The cart was pushed through the middle of the refectory, where all the boys and girls could turn around and admire the delicious food that passed us just ten feet away. The same thing happened on almost a daily basis. Our keepers, one on the girls’ side and one on the boys’ side, banged on their clappers, and we were told to get back to our porridge and don’t turn our heads again or it would be detention or another kind of penance.

It was always a mystery to me why teachers and keepers talked so much about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I also wondered why Jesus was born in poverty. We should all try to be like him, learn how to accept punishment here and not in hell. Apparently they didn’t know it was suffering enough to see all that beautiful food being wheeled by and only getting a smell of it. They didn’t practice what they preached. Not one iota.

When there was a visit from the thYou can also visit e The head Catholic cleric of the districtThey would visit us with chiefs and members of council from Indian reserves. They treated the northern guests with food, good service, and they would stand up to address the children from the front.

God!I once thought that. Hypocrisy!. Someone sure pulled the wool over their heads, as that was how it was supposed to look. It happened repeatedly.


University of Regina Press has a new edition of “The Educational of Augie Merasty: a Residential School Memoir”.

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