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Education of Augie Merasty launches One Book, One Province Saskatchewan initiative, days after author’s death

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A 2015 memoir about a Cree trapper’s childhood experiences in a northern residential school has been chosen for the inaugural One Book, One Province Saskatchewan program.

Augie MerastyThe Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir, published by University of Regina Press and written by Joseph Auguste Merasty in collaboration with Saskatchewan author David Carpenter, was selected as the title to be celebrated during a month-long initiative focusing on the theme of “tolerance and understanding.” The book was chosen by a steering committee made up of members from the Saskatchewan Library Association, says SLA president Michael Shires.

The idea of encouraging everyone in the province to read a single title originated with the Multitype Library Board, a group legislated by the province to coordinate high-level discussions of issues facing public, university, school, and special libraries. “SLA has a representative on this board,” says Shires, “and we learned of this initiative and we were really the only library association in the province that had the capacity to do this. It was a bit of a risk; nothing like this had been done in the province.”

The program encourages libraries to offer residents access to the book, set up events and activities around issues of indigenous culture and identity, and raise awareness of the residential school system and its importance for the ongoing Truth and Reconciliation process. The provincial government has declared March 1 One Book, One Province Saskatchewan Day, and there is an event scheduled at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, featuring Carpenter, student Robyn Badger, and performer Brad Bellegarde. Blair Stonechild will also be present to provide a first-hand account of the residential school experience.

The series of events planned throughout the province during the coming month has taken on an unexpectedly bittersweet aspect in the wake of Merasty’s death on Feb. 27, at the age of 87. “It’s a sad time,” says Carpenter. “Augie abused his body in many ways, but he seemed to have a resilience such that I kind of thought he was immortal.”

Merasty’s daughter, Arlene, will attend a March 8 event in Prince Albert along with Merasty’s sister, Gertie, an elder who will lead opening prayers. “The tone of the event has now shifted to be more of a celebration of Augie’s life and legacy,” says Ann Liang, marketing and outreach librarian at Saskatchewan Polytechnic Library.

The celebratory aspect is appropriate for a memoir that began as a series of handwritten scraps sent piecemeal to Carpenter, and went on to become a national bestseller. “It was sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle,” says Carpenter of the book’s composition. “[Merasty] had piles of handwritten things to say – letters and stories. Some of them had no endings and some of them are repeated versions, different versions of the same story.”

But Carpenter persevered with the project, in part because of his admiration for Merasty’s bravery in wanting to tell his story. “It took tremendous courage for him to revisit that awful past. I mean, he had to go back into his own memory to dredge up these stories for me,” Carpenter says. “I’ve always thought that to write something down as clearly as possible has the potential to heal. I think he did some necessary exorcisms by writing those stories.”

Having the slim volume chosen as the inaugural One Book, One Province Saskatchewan title is a fitting tribute to the author’s resilience and perseverance, Carpenter suggests. “I think Augie is truly the first hero I’ve actually met.”