It’s easy to declare yourself conversant with the details and scope of a social or political issue after watching a few news reports and reading a column or two on the subject. A case in point is the ongoing struggle for justice, recognition, and reparation for the thousands of native survivors of Canadian residential schools.
Most of us know something about the country’s century-long history of forcibly removing native children from their homes and housing them in church-run educational institutions. Few who’ve read about the damage and abuse inflicted on those students would fail to agree with former justice minister Irwin Cotler’s blunt assessment that the policy constituted “the single most harmful, disgraceful, and racist act in [Canadian] history.” But even the most sympathetic observers tend to focus their outrage on the sexual abuse the students suffered, as if the systemic rapes and molestations were an aberration in an otherwise harsh but well-intentioned system that unfortunately reflected the racist politics of its time.
B.C.-based Ojibway author Richard Wagamese has written much, both fiction and non-fiction, about the horrific impact of those schools on former students, and the pain and hurt victims often pass on to their own children. Wagamese’s parents survived the residential school system, but emerged so damaged by the abuse they witnessed and experienced that they were unable to raise their son themselves.
In his new novel, Wagamese confronts that legacy head-on, bringing a depressingly believable 1960s residential school to life through the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway boy from Northwestern Ontario. This stark, moving novel makes clear that residential schools were, in Saul’s words, “hell on earth,” with the priests and nuns’ “night time invasions” of the dorm rooms to molest their favoured victims merely one (albeit particularly degrading) form of abuse.
Saul’s young life is overshadowed by the system before he even enters St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School in 1961 at the age of eight. His parents are school survivors, his mother “turned so far inward she sometimes ceased to exist in the outside world.” Having already lost one daughter to the schools, Saul’s parents take him and his older brother, Benjamin, into the bush to live off the land with an uncle and Saul’s grandmother.
The extended family manages to elude the authorities for awhile, but Benjamin is eventually snatched by government agents and placed in a school in Kenora. He escapes a few years later and returns to the family, but is so badly stricken with tuberculosis that he soon dies. Saul’s parents disappear into an alcoholic, nomadic existence in Northern Ontario mining and mill towns, leaving their remaining boy with his grandmother in the bush, a short-lived idyll that ends when the old woman freezes to death and Saul is sent to St. Jerome’s.
The scenes inside the school are often harrowing, but Wagamese’s even tone, propulsive storytelling, and sharp eye for reportorial details render the regimen of beatings, rapes, and ritualized humiliations both believable and shocking. What becomes clear to Saul is that the school was not built to teach native children to thrive in a new world but to break the students’ spirits and sever any ties with their old ways of life. Those who resist are beaten, tortured, and starved until they submit, succumb to the abuse, or commit suicide.
Hope arrives in the form of a seemingly idealistic young priest who introduces the older boys to ice hockey. The priest takes Saul under his wing, even though the boy is younger than the other players on the team. Saul has a natural talent for the game; like all great players he sees complex plays before they unfold on the ice and exploits that vision to master his opponents. He is soon outplaying the older boys and seems headed for a potential career in the game. Wagamese employs lyrical, imagistic language to capture the joyful exuberance, speed, and unselfconscious camaraderie of hockey in particular and team sports in general.
Saul’s brutal journey through the racist ranks of minor-league hockey and into an alcohol-ravaged adulthood is surprisingly inspiring and often funny, without downplaying the indignities suffered by Saul’s counterparts in native communities across the country. Saul is portrayed clearly enough to function as a believable, engaging narrator, but he also operates as a kind of allegorical figure in a larger, spiritual drama of personal and communal trauma, endurance, and recovery.
Wagamese pulls off a fine balancing act: exposing the horrors of the country’s residential schools while also celebrating Canada’s national game.