My Family Photos Project: Notes on Reconstructing Three Generations of Family Photos

My mother, with whom I currently live, is getting older, and less well. Her enormous collection of family photos, taken mainly by her and her father, recording the lives of, basically, three generations, in England and Canada, is one of her most precious assets. (Technically, including a couple of pictures of my great-grandparents, and even great-great-grandparents, and a couple of pictures of my cousins’ kids, there are six generations represented in the collection.) To avoid family squabbles when the inevitable happens, I decided three months ago to digitalize the collection, so the pictures could be readily shared among family members. I had ready access to the original photos, and owned an iPhone and  iPad, with which it is now possible to accomplish such a job at virtually no extra cost (I had to purchase the photo scanner app, Pic Scanner, that cost all of $2.99)–unless time is translated into dollars.

When I started this project, I wanted simply to get the original photos into digital form. I had no thought of tinkering with the photos in any way; however, for previous projects, I’ve exploited the graphics capabilities of my iPad, acquiring a fairly good knowledge of these capabilities as I went along, and, not long into this family photo project, originally just for pragmatic reasons, I started digitally enhancing, or modifying, some of the old family photos. Later into the project, I made further modifications for my pleasure and amusement–and, I hope, for the pleasure and amusement of those who will see these images.

This blog post comprises a small sample of the finished digitalized photos, with notes about my process of making any modifications that were made–and, in some cases, not making any modifications, because the original photos were wonderful as they were. Besides being for interested family members, who may notice that several pictures in their collection of digitalized family album photos aren’t quite as they remember, this post may serve as an inspiration to others thinking of undertaking similar family album projects. There’s much more that can be done with the photos than just basic scanning. This post also serves to explain, to some extent, what I’ve been doing with my free time in the past few months, instead of writing the blog posts that used to appear here regularly, every couple of weeks. (My mother’s needs also have been greater lately, and have required an increased amount of my ‘free’ time.)

 BASIC ADDING OF COLOUR

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After digitalizing all the photos in my mother’s photo albums, and after making many of the enhancements that I would make–including, in some cases, adding colour–to certain photos in the collection, I found this photo, delicately painted with watercolours, amid an assortment of small, loose, photos from my mother’s youth in her native England, in a crumpled plastic bag at the back of a cupboard in a now unused room upstairs. These precious photos could easily have been lost forever if I hadn’t found them when I did.

The image is of my mother, at about age two, with her childhood pet dog. It probably was my mother who painted this picture, when she was still a child, a few years older than she was in this picture. However, although I don’t remember it, if I did get my hands on this picture when I was a kid, it could have been me who painted it, since I enjoyed colouring as a kid, and was good at it (even winning some colouring contests, for which I earned my first small ‘paycheques’). Or it may have been someone else entirely …

The inclination to add colour to B&W photos probably has been common for a long time, even long before there was such as thing as colour photography. Now that colour photography is our norm, the inclination is probably even more common. With digital photography, and the various graphics tools that cost next to nothing that can be installed on tablets and SmartPhones, enhancing B&W photos with colour has become extremely easy. Sometimes colour does enhance an old B&W photo–although, in other cases, it doesn’t. Sometimes, it’s a question of taste.

Pictures I Took Myself

The following two images started with B&W photos I myself took with my first-ever camera, when I was about seven years old and we lived on the beachfront at Crescent Beach (a beach town near Vancouver). The camera was a cheap plastic camera, that I must have received as a gift from my parents, for which the cost of a roll of film and the developing of the film probably well-exceeded the cost of the camera. Taking a decent picture with that camera was extremely iffy. I remember how disappointed I was when I got the pictures I had taken with it back from developing: most were just a blur.  (I went through only two rolls of film with that camera.) My mother did, however, save in her family album from that era the handful of pictures I took with that camera that were at all worth saving, including these two pictures–one of my youngest sister sitting on a log on the beach and the other of my mother standing beside a breakwater.

Because the original prints were somewhat out of focus (these were the good ones in the group), and because I had taken the original pictures myself, I felt no qualms about doing some basic editing, just recropping the pictures and doing some simple colour enhancement using colour filters from the app, Colorburn. (The app is American, hence the spelling.)  These were the first photos in this massive family photo project with which I did more than just scan.

 

Now I get to feel better about my first venture into photography than I did when, as a young kid, I pulled those very disappointing B&W prints out of the photo envelope at the drugstore. (My mother very much likes the subtly colourized version of herself on the beach.)

Pictures Taken by My Mother

When I next started tinkering with a few of the family photos taken by my mother, I had to think twice about whether I was crossing a line that I shouldn’t be crossing. My mother has, by now, seen these colourized pictures, and says that–with one notable exception–she likes the pictures.

I chose to try colour enhancement with the photo immediately below because it is an important photo in terms of our family record, yet the original was somewhat out of focus, and also needed more brightness to make the subjects stand out. The subjects of the photo include my father, in the centre, flanked by his mother (or my grandmother) and her identical twin sister (or my great-aunt), the twins’ mother (or my great-grandmother) sitting at the front, me on my father’s shoulders, and my younger sister, then a new baby, on our great-grandmother’s lap. The setting is, I think, the  large back yard of my grandmother’s house in North Vancouver–where she kept a goat, for milk. (Even back then, this was odd in North Vancouver.)

After much trial and error, I came across a wondrous single photo filter, Wonka, within the camera app, Camera Awesome, that did all the amazing colourizing that is evident in the before and after images. This AWESOME filter adds a cloudy blue sky effect in the upper reaches, greens and browns for vegetation in the background, and highlights for central figures, plus a little red trim along the bottom that works beautifully in this picture with the trim on the bottom of my great-grandmother’s dress, all in one fell swoop! I couldn’t have done a better job colourizing this photo if I’d handpainted it. This miraculous filter alone makes the app worth purchasing. (I already had it on my iPad before starting this family album project.)

To give readers some sense of the sensitivity to form of the Wonka filter, I also used it to colourize the below image, of me again perched on the shoulders of my father. The filter apparently recognized, through shape and location cues, that there are no trees or lawn in this photo, and omitted most of the green part of the filter.

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Even in basic B&W, the below photo of my father with me again perched on his shoulders walking in the woods, another taken by my mother, is beautiful. It was my attraction to this lovely photograph, and what it represents about my early relationship with my father–and the early relationships of both of us with my mother, the photographer–that led me to play around with it. I created about a dozen variations, only two of which, plus the original, I have included below. For the image in the centre, I used just basic colour filters. For the image on the right, I used the app, Brushstroke, that offers a wide and very interesting selection of painting effects and colour palettes.

I chose to tinker with the below B&W photo taken by my mother because it was an interesting photo of me and two of my sisters (I’m on the right, feigning surprise, I think) yet I found the lighting qualities of the original very unsatisfying. After playing around with some filters, I very much like what I ended up with–although my mother says my version is “too bright.”  Sometimes, it is a matter of taste.

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On the whole, adding some enhancements to my mother’s photographs, with her providing input, proved to be a lovely collaboration between me and my mother.

AN INTERESTING ACCIDENT

When scanning photos using the ‘snapshot method’ that is the foundation of smartphone scanning apps like the one I used for this project, Pic Scanner, you’re likely to sometimes get distortion effects through holding the ‘camera’ (i.e., phone) at the wrong angle. When you’re getting towards the end of a batch of more that a hundred photos you’re trying to scan in one morning, before heading off to work, getting some distortion effects is almost inevitable. In both of the below images there is some distortion, although the distortion is far more pronounced–and more interesting–in the image on the right. (The image on the left is closer to the original although, in that one, there’s still a strange elongation of the lower limbs of my father and sister.)

The effect of the looming totem pole was so interesting that I took the time to add some colour to this image using Colorburn. (I hope me playing around with this totem pole in this way doesn’t offend anyone. It’s not my intention.) The use of just a couple of colours for the entire image, repeated for the totem and the human subjects, suggests, to me, the people in the image are part of the totem pole.

 

THE WONDERFUL EARLY ENGLISH PHOTOS

As I previously mentioned, after digitalizing all of the photos in the many family albums, and tinkering with a few, and thinking I was finally DONE, I came across a stray crumpled plastic bag containing many more small photos from my mother’s youth in England. There were at least fifty photos in this batch.

Many of these small photos (each only two inches by three inches) were extremely damaged, although several were, despite the damage, quite lovely. The salvage job required that I become adept at using the photo-editing app, Snapseed (another app I already had downloaded, although used infrequently, prior to this project).  This iPad app, that again costs next to nothing, is exceptionally good, enabling anyone with some extra time and some manual dexterity to do the kind of photo-editing that previously would have had to be done by professionals, using expensive equipment.

Before coming across these old pictures, some of which are close to a hundred years old, I had no idea how attractive my mother’s mother (my English grandmother) was as a young woman. I also had no idea what an excellent photographer my English grandfather was. (He never finished high school, but made a great success as a wine merchant in London after serving in WW I. He was the one in that generation of the family who took most of the family photos.) His forte was composition, with many of his photos resembling still-life paintings.

Because most of these photos were so beat up when I found them, and serious imperfections remained in several of them even after my editing with Snapseed, I again took the liberty of doing some cosmetic tinkering.

The first example is of my mother as a toddler, with her mother behind her, apparently helping to ensure the toddler remains erect, wading in shallow water on the shore. This picture seemed well-suited to a vignette treatment–and a little colour.

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I chose to tinker with the below photo, of my grandmother lying on the sand with grass in the background, taken by my grandfather on their honeymoon, because the sky in the original photo was very blotchy, even after my preliminary editing. I used a painting effect for my grandfather’s painterly photo available on Brushstroke, and a blue and gold colour filter also available on Brushstroke. Finally, I went over the sky using an airbrush effect on  ArtStudio, to get rid of the last of those blotches.

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The below two symmetrical images, of my grandfather smoking a pipe and my grandmother holding a coat, wading in water, originally were separate, but I joined them, using the app Pic Stitch.  After that, I added some colour, using colour filters.

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I wonder what my grandfather, in particular, who seemed to be quite the artist at heart, would think of this picture of him and his then-new bride dipping their feet in some colour. (An ordinary blue would have been too prosaic for the kind of effect I wanted to capture here. I wanted my youthful grandparents to be dipping their feet in some real COLOUR.)

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Some photos just shouldn’t be messed with, other than, maybe, a little tuning, and the following photo is one of them. I love this picture of my grandmother, taken when she was about twenty years old, by my grandfather. Her face and expression in this picture remind me of a young Kate Winslet. The composition of this photo is beautiful.

The below photo, another taken by my grandfather, is of my mother when she was about two years old, against a bucolic country backdrop.  (When my mother recently saw this picture, she was reminded of all the times when she was a young child that she took off on her own to explore her environs, leaving her parents very worried.)

All I did to this picture was sharpen up the focus in certain areas using Snapseed, brighten up the foreground image of child, again using Snapseed, and patch up the sky, that was quite damaged in the original photo, again using Snapseed and ArtStudio. My grandfather deserves the real credit for this beautiful photo.

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  POSSIBLE TAKING AWAY OF COLOUR

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In the course of my family photo album project, while I added colour to several old B&W photos, I never took colour away from any of the hundreds of colour photos with which I worked. It’s a technique that could be worth exploring for this kind of project.

I’ve included the above images of tomatoes here to illustrate one use of this technique. The images started with a colour photo I took of three of the varied tomatoes I grew in our garden a few years ago, that I tweaked with ArtStudio to derive the image on the left. Then I took the colour away, and superimposed a photo of clouds in the sky,  to derive the second image of a “tomato-being” floating in the clouds. (The image was to illustrate a post about cloud computing in my first, novice, blog, “The Tomato Diaries.” Each post included an image that incorporated tomatoes.) No, the “tomato-being” is not a relative. I’m not descended from inhabitants of an intergalactic vegetable patch–or, for that matter, from a terrestrial one.

 

 MIXED TECHNIQUES (AND MIXED EMOTIONS)

With digital graphics techniques, and the current ready access of most of us to good, and inexpensive, graphics tools, there really are no limits (other than the ethical kind) in how far one can take the photos in the digital family album.

On Pi Day, last week, I created the below image, starting with a simple B&W photo my mother took of me on a teeter-totter. To create this image, along with various apps I’ve already mentioned in this post, I used the app, Fragment, to get the multiple images of the girl (i.e., me) that frame the central image.

The edited image suggests to me learning the basics of geometry and physics through physical activity. It’s also a happy picture, with the suggestion that the related learning experiences are enjoyable.

On a related theme, one of my sisters has less pleasant memories of teeter-totters. I showed her the below photo, without any of its graphic embellishments, when she came for a visit recently, when I was in the midst of my family album project,  and the words in the speech bubble are almost word-for-word what she said. (She thinks this ‘cartoon’ is amusing, so I’m taking the liberty of sharing it.) To get the ‘cartoon’ effects, I used the app, Halftone.

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A CELEBRATION!

After three months, my family album project is finally complete.

It’s been a very worthwhile project, and I encourage anyone who is thinking of attempting such a project to go for it.

It’s good that I did this while my mother is still with us, since she’s been able to pass on her knowledge about people and places in the photos–that I recorded in the Comments section of Dropbox, the app that I used to share the photos. It’s a process that I think she’s enjoyed, as well.

Enhancing some of the photos in the vast collection has proved to be a lovely collaboration not only between me and my mother, but also between me and my English grandfather, who passed on his love of photography to his daughter.

Now it’s time for me to celebrate! That’s me, below, on my fourth birthday, many years ago, before colour photography–but colourized with Colorburn.  (My next birthday is in just a few days.)

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Back in the Loop & Back to the Loop–The Nanaimo Bus Loop, That Is


I’ve got a couple of free hours this morning, and am using the free time to tie up loose ends from my last blog post, posted over two months ago–and to account for my long absence. I haven’t not posted something in this blog this long before, not even when my mother was in hospital for a few months last winter, initially gravely ill, and family matters took precedence over everything else. This time, it was working on the federal election, mainly, that prevented me from writing: I worked as a paid political surveyor for the three months leading up to the election. Contractual constraints prevented me from publicly discussing the work I was then doing–although I did sneak in one related, non-partisan, Tweet:

This really happened. I was tired (this tweet was sent at the improbable time of 6:11 AM because my workday began at the improbable time of 7 AM, and the hours were long) and heading home directly from work when the incident occurred, and the odd perception lasted for only a moment; but it made me think that, with sufficient repetition, it would be quite easy to alter the conceptual categories we usually use for sorting people–for better or for worse.

Besides my employment contract preventing me from writing about the work I was then doing, the long hours prevented me from writing virtually anything at all. Then, too, family matters following from my mother’s medical scare continued to take up considerable time. It’s probably a good thing that all this family friction has come out into the open when my mother is still very much alive –although here, too, although for very different reasons, I’m not at liberty to publicly discuss the details.

Now, back to the incident at the Nanaimo Bus Loop …. As I recounted back in August, I was levelled as I was exiting a small, portable, convenience store located at the Loop by an athletic young woman who was running to catch her bus, whose view of me was entirely blocked by her angle of approach in relation to the design and placement of the store. Although I initially thought I could have a broken or cracked pelvic bone, x-rays proved otherwise, and, although for a couple of weeks, my mobility was limited by severe pain from the soft tissue injuries I had incurred, I made a full recovery within a month.

Although my injury proved not to be very serious, I contacted TransLink, initially via email, at this stage with no thought of financial compensation, to help TransLink avert further incidents of this nature–or worse, related, incidents. For example, if I’d been elderly and physically frail, and was hit as hard as I was hit, I would surely have had at least a broken bone or two. A very young child could easily have been killed. Perhaps because they feared I had a hidden pecuniary agenda (I can’t think of any other reason for their behaviour), TransLink then refused to accept any culpability–even though it is stated in the guidelines for private vendors at TransLink locations, on the TransLink website, that TransLink is responsible for approving the design of, and supervising the installation of, stores and kiosks at TransLink locations.

I did take this to the next level, speaking in person for over an hour with a claims adjustor working on behalf of TransLink. (TransLink uses an external company for this kind of thing.) At this stage, I did ask for some financial compensation (just a couple of thousand dollars) mainly because I thought TransLink deserved some sort of punishment for the way I had been treated when I earlier tried to make my case via email–and because I had indeed lost a few days of work, and pay, because of the incident. Again, this time via a formal letter that I received a couple of weeks after meeting with the claims adjustor, my case was dismissed. Moreover, when I was last at the Nanaimo Bus Loop, just last week, I observed that no changes had been made in the design and/or placement of the portable convenience store at that location. The design and placement of the store in combination with pedestrian traffic patterns at the Nanaimo Bus Loop continue to present a serious hazard to transit users.

If money were my major concern, I’ve been told I could take this case to small claims court, and very likely receive some compensation. Although the money couldn’t hurt, I’m more concerned about TransLink taking responsibility where it is due, and about TransLink being diligent in trying to ensure that transit users can navigate its system without incurring bodily harm. I’m skipping small claims court; however, there are no contractual constraints in my relationship with TransLink, or any other good reasons, that prevent me from further commenting on social media about this incident.

Blindsided by TransLink at the Nanaimo Bus Loop

About two weeks ago, when I was exiting the mobile store at the Nanaimo bus loop, here in Vancouver, I was bowled over by a young woman running to catch a bus that was parked behind the store–where the bus in the above photo is situated. Initially, I assumed it was just this young woman who was responsible for the accident, running too fast in such an environment and not paying adequate attention to her surroundings. I took it for granted that the design and placement of the store in relation to pedestrian traffic were basically safe. Normally, we can take such things for granted. But when I returned to this location a few days later (on crutches), and really looked at the design and placement of the store in relation to pedestrian traffic, I could see the potential perils.

If the young woman had approached the store from the angle from which I took the above photo, and was unfamiliar with this odd little store, she would have been unable to discern that store customers exit (and enter) from behind the hinged door that directly faced her and not from the side of the store where, from this angle, there seems to be a passageway, suggested by the protruding curve. She may even have been unable to discern that this was a store, with any exiting (or entering) involved. The woman insisted when she stopped to help me get up that she had been unable to see me until the moment when she crashed into me, and now I’m inclined to believe this was the case–and that she wasn’t simply being a jerk.

From a somewhat different angle, such as the angle from which I took the next photo, there is less ambiguity–but still, the design and placement of the store in relation to pedestrian traffic leave much to be desired.

Although I initially thought I would be left with only a bad bruise on my hip from my fall, it turns out I was actually hurt quite badly. It wasn’t until I had hobbled to my bus and had sat down that I experienced those telltale signs that something was seriously amiss–nausea and light-headedness. (Usually it does take a minute or two to register these things.) I actually passed out for a few seconds, during which time the bus started to leave the station. (Even if I had thought at the time of getting names and phone numbers of the woman who had hit me and other witnesses, there really was no opportunity, short of jumping off the bus at the next stop and getting back on a bad leg.) The pain in my pelvic area was excruciating for the next couple of days, and I seriously thought I had broken a bone, although nothing showed up on the X-rays I had taken last week. The doctor who examined me then thought it was probably all soft tissue damage, although she did suggest I come back for more X-rays if the pain persisted–which I’m now thinking of doing.

It could have been much, much, worse. I could have fallen on my head, as opposed to my hip. Or, if a very elderly person had been exiting the store at the moment I was exiting it, and had fallen hard like I did, they almost certainly would have experienced serious fractures. Or, if a parent carrying a baby, or pushing a stroller, had been hit as I was hit, the consequences could have been truly tragic.

What really makes me mad about this is that TransLink, our public transportation authority, has refused to take any responsibility for what transpired. When I called TransLink to complain, I was told that TransLink has no responsibility for the design and placement of mobile businesses, like this little mobile store, to which they lease space. But since TransLink should be cognizant of pedestrian traffic patterns in facilities like the Nanaimo bus loop, and since they should be aware of the tendencies of able-bodied transit users to sometimes dash to make their buses and trains (in my better days, I’ve done some dashing myself)–to a greater extent than any vendor with limited transit knowledge to which they lease space–it seems that, for the safety of TransLink users, TransLink should be required to inspect the design and placement of these mobile structures and to exert veto power when necessary. Also, they should be required to take responsibility when something for which they are ultimately responsible goes awry.

I’m tempted to sue, but without names and numbers for the woman who knocked me over and other witnesses, I’m unlikely to have any luck. (When I went back to speak to speak with her, the woman who was then working in the store did clearly remember the incident, and me.)

Has anyone else had a similar experience on any TransLink property–or maybe on a transit property in another jurisdiction?

BOOK REVIEW: “Rose’s Run,” by Dawn Dumont


I’ve been reading a lot of material about Canadian First Nations people over the past few months–including the two books my reviews of which have comprised the past two posts in this blog. All of this material has consisted of non-fiction. I wanted to try some First Nations fiction for a change. First Nations fiction is something I haven’t yet explored and, given that I’d heard several reports of excellent work in this area having been produced in recent years, it seemed about time.

So when I was down at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library a couple of weeks ago, I hit the “New Fiction” section, looking for something, anything really, since I then didn’t have any authors’ names to go by, that could serve as my starting point for exploring this new terrain. Dawn Dumont’s 2014 novel, “Rose’s Run,” published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press and the winner of the 2014 City of Regina Book Award for Fiction, flew off the shelf into my eager hands. I say ‘flew’ off because there is a prominent silhouette of an in-flight raven against a bright red background on the cover that made the book readily identifiable to me as First Nations literature. (I commend whoever thought up, and executed, this cover image. It not only fits the story but also works well in attracting newcomers like me interested in a good First Nations read, probably as well as those more experienced with this genre.)

After reading “Rose’s Run” and, immediately after, her earlier book of biographical essays, “Nobody Cries at Bingo”–and watching an episode of the APTN show “Fish out of Water” that she co-hosts–DAWN DUMONT is a name I won’t be forgetting any time soon. The caliber of Dumont’s writing combined with her TV hosting duties and involvement with theatre (she’s written some plays I haven’t yet read), and her sense of humour, bring to mind another Canadian author/broadcaster who is much better known, at least in my circles: Ann-Marie MacDonald. I suspect that, if Dumont were White, although she’s still only in her mid- to late-30s, she’d already be at least as well-known across Canada as MacDonald–and maybe she eventually will be.

“Rose’s Run” combines a very contemporary story of female resistance against male repression and female redemption, set on a rural Saskatchewan reservation, with supernatural elements taken from plains Cree mythology. The first part of the story takes place mainly in the ‘normal’ world; but once the central character, Rose, a mother of three now abandoned by her husband, takes up long-distance running to reclaim her self-respect and to serve as a role model to her kids, strange, otherworldly, things start to happen. After she trips and bumps her head on one of her training runs, the otherworldly elements amp up, until the final chapter of the book, when Rose participates in the big marathon race that has been her goal since taking up running and things get back, at least superficially, to ‘normal’.

The combination of the the ‘normal’ and the supernatural works extremely well in this book, especially through Dumont linking supernatural elements to long-distance running. In reading this book, I was reminded of the “magic realism” of certain South American writers, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but with the supernatural elements taken from Cree culture, set in a contemporary Canadian context.

Dawn Dumont’s “Rose’s Run” provided me with an excellent introduction to Canadian First Nations fiction and I’m looking forward to reading many more such books, by her and by other Canadian First Nations authors. Dumont has set the bar high with “Rose’s Run,” so I hope I won’t be disappointed when reading other books of this genre.

As a final point here, after reading both of Dumont’s books set in in Saskatchewan (the novel and her biographical essays) and published by a Saskatoon publisher, as well as reading some interesting non-fiction books published by the University of Regina press in the past few months (including not only the two I’ve reviewed in this blog), I’ve become much more interested in Saskatchewan as a possible place to spend some time in the future. Many interesting things seem to be going on culturally now in Saskatchewan, related especially to the strong First Nations presence in that province. (My only previous personal experience of Saskatchewan was taking the Greyhound through the province heading back to Vancouver when I was a student at McGill, and stopping over for a couple of hours at the bus depot in Saskatoon. Seems there’s a lot more to the province than wheatfields and that depressing bus depot.)

BOOK REVIEW: “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir”, by Joseph Auguste Merasty with David Carpenter

The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir

I awoke the morning after finishing reading this book the evening before, just before I went to sleep, with a very poignant, and powerful, scene being acted out on the movie screen of my waking mind. I saw a drunk and disheveled old Native guy, someone I hadn’t previously met, sitting alone on a bench in a city park. Normally, if I’d come across a guy like that, I would have just let him be, and gone on my way. But that’s not what happened this time.

I observed him for a while, realizing, oddly (we hadn’t previously met), that this was a guy who had many interesting stories to tell, and who was a good story-teller, and I wanted to hear those stories. I also knew that, due to the drink, and his age, and a possible desire to preserve his dignity, I shouldn’t expect that his stories would be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But I wanted to hear his stories anyway, and to share a park bench with him and savour his warmth and gentle humour, so I went over to join him. I sat down, and we started to talk. Then I got up … up out of bed, that is, only because it was a workday and I had to get to work.

Critically-minded readers who read “The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir” looking for just further evidence of the indignities and abuse suffered by residential school students are likely to find this book disappointing–at least initially. Augie Merasty, a survivor of nine years at the St. Therese Residential School in Sturgeon Landing, whose handwritten stories of his experiences at the school written over several years comprise the basis of this book, is not, as I think any reasonable person would acknowledge, an entirely reliable narrator.

Age, drink, and the fact that, at least when he began his project of recording stories from his days at St. Therese, he was likely to have been aware that he stood to gain financially by presenting a dark picture, all lend suspicion to his account. (Augie began to record his stories in the late 1990s as evidence to be used by lawyers in the first stage of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that led to a 1.9 billion federal government settlement package, implemented in 2007, for survivors of the residential schools.)

A further, related, problem, is that, although Augie is still alive, he apparently is now too sick (from cancer) to do television interviews and other kinds of personal appearances that could lend credibility to his case. We’re unable to watch Augie, and to listen to his actual voice, as he relates his stories–unlike when we watched, and listened to, selected survivors of the residential schools presenting their videotaped testimonies as part of the wrap-up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on June 2, and knew, with certainly, that they were telling the truth and, furthermore, knew, with certainty, what a devastating experience this had been for them.

In addition to these problems related to Augie himself, there are problems related to how this book was put together. A professional writer, David Carpenter, formerly a teacher in the English Department at the University of Saskatchewan, considerably helped Augie in bringing to fruition his dream of publishing his memoir as a book. As Carpenter reveals in the relatively lengthly introduction to this slim volume (about a third of which consists of the Introduction), he had to do a great deal of editing to corral the various prose passages and letters that Augie provided, over a period of several years, into a coherent, publishable, book. A question arises, as it inevitably does with this kind of collaboration, regarding who actually contributed what to the finished work.

Often, in the main section of the book that is supposed to be Augie’s memoir, the language is jarring, not at all in keeping with how a Native guy who did learn how to read and write at St. Therese’s but who spent most of his working life as a fisherman and trapper would be expected to communicate. For example, would Augie really have referred to himself and his pals at school as “me and my fellow reprobates?” Or would he really have said of a particularly sadistic nun at St. Therese, “I cannot say enough to vilify her name”? Problems like this with the language used to relate Augie’s experiences dilute the credibility of the experiences themselves.
But, of course, if Carpenter hadn’t done a great deal of work on Augie’s ‘manuscript’ to make it publishable, including sometimes interjecting his own vocabulary, and sensibilities, this book would never have been published.

Despite these ‘weaknesses’, assuming that readers come to this book with the usual preconceptions and expectations–that its publishers, unfortunately, haven’t made an effort to discourage–I believe this book is worth reading. It’s the images that occur after finishing the book, when one’s guard is down, and the power that these images may have in helping achieve reconciliation between Native and non-Native Canadians, that may be this book’s greatest strength. Images like that of an old, drunk, Native guy sitting on a park bench, grinning warmly as you draw near …

BOOK REVIEW: “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People” by Michel Hogue

I came to this book with an academic background not in history but, rather, in issues associated with philosophical change in Canadian postsecondary education. One of my interests is implications for humanities research, including historical research, of postmodernism. I’ve also had a longstanding interest in Canada’s First Nations people, but mainly in the present context. (I worked for a few years for CESO on a Native youth employment program that gave me the opportunity to visit several reserves in northern Quebec and BC. The experience left a very strong impression.)

Frankly, I’m generally wary of the work of academic historians. So much of such work buys into, if not explicitly then implicitly, the binary logic that has held sway in Western universities since their inception. This system of logic no longer generally prevails in modern democracies like Canada so, at best, such work is merely outdated. Often, such work is not only outdated but also conceivably could do harm. (I could say more about how such harm may occur, but this isn’t the place for another one of my screeds about academic humanities research.)

Although Michel Hogue is a professor in the History Department at Carleton University and “Metis and the Medicine Line” is published, in Canada, by the University of Regina Press (it originally was published in the US by the University of North Carolina Press), I would strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in Canadian Metis history and culture and/or the history of the Canada-US border–even to those skeptical of academe. I also would recommend it to any culturally responsible Canadian whose knowledge of plains history is, like mine was before I read this book, basically confined to compulsory high-school history classes and watching “Dancing With Wolves,” who should know more–even if they don’t yet know it. (I saw “Dancing With Wolves” a second time, on APTN, after reading this book, and the movie was more interesting the second time around.) I also would recommend it to academic historians, regardless of their areas of specialization, as a model of how academic historical work can remain relevant, and be beneficial, in the current era.

Because of its rich detail, “Metis and the Medicine Line” sometimes can be tough reading, even for academically trained readers. But getting through the book’s densely packed pages is worth the effort. (To be fair, there are several interesting historical photographs interspersed throughout the book.) These details are included not merely to illustrate particular points but also themselves effectively comprise two central points of the book.

The first is that Metis history is much more rich and complex than has traditionally been portrayed. As Hogue recounts, when the North American plains were first being colonized, the Metis people crossed many of the conceptual ‘borders’ that the White colonists, who themselves thought in binary terms, tried to impose on them: these include ‘borders’ relating to race, culture and nationality. The second is that the development of the physical border between Canada and the United States in western North America was a more complex, and more conflict-ridden, process than is usually understood, owing in large measure to the cross-border travel in pursuit of buffalo, and cross-border shenanigans, of migratory plains people, most notably the Metis. (The meaning of “the medicine line” in the title of the book is related to some of these shenanigans. If you want to know more, you’ll have to read the book.)

A stylistic device that Hogue employs throughout this book that helps to organize, and to bring resonance to, details he provides about Metis life and culture and Canada-US border creation issues is to follow a single Metis family, the family of the peripatetic trader Antoine Ouellette and his wife Angelique Bottineau, through the period covered in the book. It’s a very clever, very elegant, device that draws readers back in when the details may be starting to wear them down. It worked that way for me, anyway.

Because I’m not a historian specializing in Metis culture and/or Canada-US border development, I don’t know if and, if so, to what extent, Michel Hogue’s book, and his related academic work, is precedent setting. I’m curious to know. I would suggest that with “Metis and the Medicine Line”, Hogue not only has written an important book about a people that crossed racial, cultural and national borders, but also has done some significant border-crossing himself, bringing a fresh, non-traditional, non-binary, perspective to this subject. He is to be commended–as are his publishers.

A relatively minor shortcoming of this book, in my view, is that I wish that Hogue had said a little more about himself in his book, and what led him to write it. The combination of his first and last names suggests his family backgound is culturally mixed, including some French or French-Canadian. In a book like this, I think he owes it to his readers to let them know at least if he is, or isn’t, Metis. . . . Actual Metis, that is, and not just any old border-crossing, contemporary, Canadian who identifies with these border-crossing people.

Reclaiming Our Stories: Another View of Residential Schools

For a couple of years, when I was in my late teens, my family was entirely dysfunctional. Right after my mother and father separated, there was some financial hardship and the trauma of moving from a small town to the big city so my mother could go back to work as a secretary. But that was nothing compared to when my mother hooked up with an abusive, violent, alcoholic, fertilizer salesman (really), who moved in with my mother and we four girls when I was 17. Things then got completely out of control–or, should I say, the fertilizer really flew.

As the eldest of the brood, with only two years left in high-school, immediately after which I hightailed it out of there, I got off relatively easy. But I do know a thing or two about growing up in poverty with an alcoholic parent, or surrogate parent, and how this can affect kids. The kids who are especially vulnerable, because they’re the youngest, or smallest, or least developed intellectually or emotionally, are likely to be left deeply scarred, with very low esteem. As adults, unless they recognize their problems and get professionally help, or somehow work out their problems themselves, they are likely to perpetuate the pattern of abuse.

And, oh yes, I’m White. Bad stuff sometimes happens in White families, too.

I mention this aspect of my background here–that I haven’t previously publicly divulged–because it’s relevant to my concerns about dominant narratives in Canada concerning First Nations residential schools.

I personally know not just one, but two, White Canadian writers, both of whom come from, in my view, very privileged backgrounds and both of whom are strong proponents of the now-dominant view in Canada, shared by Whites and Aboriginals alike, that Canadian First Nations residential schools were basically hellholes. Although it’s not indicated in any of their published writings of which I’m aware, both received at least their secondary educations (and maybe their elementary educations, too) in private Christian boarding schools. Schools for rich kids.  (At least some of my readers probably will want to know these writers’ names. I’m sorry, but I won’t be providing that information here. You’ll have to take my word for it.)

I don’t personally know anyone who attended a residential school. However, the comments of a Native audience member, who had family members who had attended such schools, at a talk I attended in Toronto about the residential schools, back when I was a student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, support my suspicions.

This Native audience member, a teacher herself, took exception to the overall condemnation of residential schools by the speaker, a White university professor. She pointed out that her aunt generally had enjoyed her experiences. Among the things she enjoyed, according to her niece, were that there were three meals a day and clean sheets on her bed once a week–things she wasn’t able to take for granted at home. Also, she developed a love for learning, that she shared with her niece, who went on to university and became a teacher.

I don’t mean to suggest that the residential schools were entirely without problems. But I do suspect that the very dark picture of them that currently prevails in Canada is due at least in large measure to certain influential, privileged, White folks projecting dark memories of their own boarding school experiences onto residential schools and their First Nations students. If one comes from a financially and emotionally stable family background, boarding-school life may indeed seem wretched compared to family life; but if one isn’t so lucky, while school may not be paradise, it’s likely to be more tolerable.

As for emotional scars having been left on former generations of Canada’s Aboriginal people by the residential schools, and these scars being the root cause of problems such as alcoholism and domestic abuse among succeeding generations, there are other ways that one, whether Native or White, can become emotionally scarred. Only approximately 30% of Canada’s Aboriginal children attended residential schools during the period that they were primarily active (between 1876, following the passage of the Indian Act, until the late 20th Century). It would be interesting to know which group, those who did or those who didn’t attend residential school, ended up better off.

Poverty, associated with the breakdown of traditional cultures, was rampant among Canada’s First Nations people during most of the period of the residential schools, and continues to be common among many of our First Nations people. To escape poverty, education is key.  Also, through education, we  can achieve greater control over our stories–stories told about us by others and stories about us we tell ourselves.

**In doing some basic research for this piece, I came across an interesting article published in The National Post newspaper last year, “Could it be that residential schools weren’t so bad?“, in which the author, Paul Russell, debunks various common conceptions about residential schools. While the issue of privileged White people possibly projecting their own narratives onto Aboriginal people isn’t addressed in this article, issues such as the ‘high’ rate of fatalities in the residential schools from tuberculosis and smallpox and the ‘abusive’ disciplinary practices of teachers are addressed. For anyone interested in the residential schools, I believe this article is worth a read.