My Life as Teacher, Writer, and Artist: Part 3: Writing

I write…obviously. I think I write fairly well for a French-Canadian kid from the wrong side of the tracks. That wasn’t always the case.

Of course I learned how to write when I was quite young, in elementary school. I learned early to write in French and in English. I still write in French and in English, but at the moment I write predominantly in English. However, in this blog post I don’t concentrate on the mechanics of writing. I’m more concerned here with writing as a craft, or as some would say, as an art.

I must say that I was fortunate to attend some good schools where the staff were sincerely concerned about the students and their success. I attended a French Canadian Catholic school in Maillardville*, BC close to New Westminster from 1952 until 1959. All the teachers were nuns. In 1959 I and about 40 other boys from Maillardville travelled to Edmonton to attend the Collège St-Jean. That was an excellent school where a classical education could be had. I, not being particularly brilliant at the time, failed to appreciate the good fortune I had being at such a school. Boarding with hundreds of other boys never really appealed to me, but I did okay socially. I was an especially mediocre athlete in a school that loved athletics. I pretty much failed at sports although I always participated and I failed to excel at my academic work too going from the top of my class to the bottom of my class in grade 12. I was always too self-conscious to be good at anything. Instead of going ahead and just doing things like score goals in hockey, I always had one eye on the coach concerned with what he thought of me. I had the brains and some skill along with some desire, but I was completely bereft of self-confidence. A couple of concussions I got from playing hockey probably didn’t help much either.

At Collège St-Jean students were expected to write a lot in both French and English. I managed to learn some of the basics and for some reason I loved verb conjugations in French. I studied them even when I didn’t have to. We studied Latin too and I loved Latin conjugations as much as French ones. I have no idea why. I still have in my library a book entitled 5OO French Verbs. I’ll bet you don’t have one of those. I also have a couple of Latin grammar books. Every once in a while I’ll pull one off the shelf and flip through the pages just for old times sake. I even go so far as to test my verb conjugations against the tables at the ends of the books. Now, Google has all of that online. It’s hardly any fun at all anymore. English verb conjugations are hopelessly unfun.

So, even though I was pretty much an utter failure in most of my college activities, I had some fun with language and did well in my literature and composition courses. It’s when I entered Douglas College in New Westminster in 1971 that I had to really buckle down and learn some writing skills. I struggled. Composition was not easy for me. I had to work hard at it. It seemed to take forever for me to write a term paper. At least that’s the way I felt about it. Of course, my fellow students were having as much trouble as I was, by and large, coming from the working class, but not many of us were too keen on broadcasting the fact. I busted my butt at Douglas College and ended my time there with a strong grade point average as well as eight general credits for attending Collège St-Jean in Edmonton. Douglas College was obviously impressed with the quality of the education I got at St-Jean. Simon Fraser University (SFU) went one step further than Douglas College when I applied to study there in 1973. It recognized fifteen general credits for my frankly shoddy performance at Collège St-Jean. That was the equivalent of one semester’s work. Bonus! Happy days!

SFU was mostly great but being a natural contrarian I wouldn’t see it that way most of the time I was there. I got depressed. I got anxious. I got angry. I got scared. Same as many of my fellow students. At Douglas College I found that sociology was my favourite subject so I decided to enrol in the Sociology and Anthropology Department (S&A). That was a great choice on my part. I finally did something right. I loved it and did very well in terms of grades. I still had to work hard at writing, but that was something I was willing to accept as a likely prelude to the work I would have to put into writing at any job I was to get in the future. I wasn’t happy with it, but I was resigned to not being a good writer. Still got a BA though. Grades were good too. Good enough to get into grad school, no problem. Thankfully, it was in grad school that I finally learned how to write with some fluency and ease. It was about time. Writing my dissertation proved to be the impetus for me to completely change my attitude and practice towards writing. I could not have done it without some help from a couple of amazing professors I had. I live in perpetual gratitude to Noel Dyck for working with me as a member of my committee for pushing me hard to figure out the process of writing. He’d tear my essays apart. They’d be covered in comments: “Signpost that!” “Complete your thought!” I still love him for that. Richard Coe from the English Department was also instrumental in getting me to understand the dynamics of paragraph structure and the organization of narrative. I still have his great book Toward A Grammar of Passages.

Now, writing is enjoyable for me. I can sit down and compose a thousand word blog post in an hour or two. Of course, a big part of being able to do that is to have something to write about. I think I’ve proven that I do have something to write about given the 280 blog posts I’ve put together over the years. Add to the numerous blog posts I’ve written the scores of television scripts I wrote in the 80s and 90s, a number of research reports, magazine and newspaper articles and I have a fairly impressive body of written work.

Learning how to write well has not been easy. I write now with a fair bit of ease, but that ease was birthed in anxiety and self-doubt over many years, decades even. Finally, I can say that I’m quite pleased with myself for having survived the process. I don’t look to the coach anymore to see what he thinks of me.

 

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* The history of Maillardville is interesting. It was a community of French Canadians who, for the most part, came from western Québec, close to the Ontario border, around 1909. They were brought to BC from Québec as strike breakers in a long racially-charged dispute among forestry mill owners and their white workers against an increasingly strong Asian presence in organized labour.

This man ran an Indian residential school in Alberta.

Fr. Martin Michaud OMI

Martin Michaud OMI
Martin Michaud OMI

 

Father Michaud OMI was born on January 31, 1922 at Fort Kent, Alberta, Canada.

He passed away on August 28, 2007.

 

When I was a boy, maybe 11 years old, my mother and father packed up the ’57 Dodge with about 8 or 9 of us kids and piles of supplies [I have no idea to this day how they did it] and took us on a road trip.  My memory is a little sketchy as to the exact itinerary, but I distinctly remember that we left Maillardville, near Vancouver, BC, and headed north up highway 1 to 97 to Prince George where we spent some time with some  family who lived there.  I remember that we went as far north as Dawson Creek then headed east into Alberta to Edmonton, then south again to a place  that stunned me and that I have never forgotten. As far as I can remember, the place was close to Trochu, Alberta, but I can’t guarantee that.  It was an ‘Indian’ residential school and my ‘uncle’ Martin Michaud was the man in charge. It was summertime so all the ‘residents’ were away at the time with their families.  Us kids [maybe all of us] slept in the dorm.  I had no clue about the political significance of the place and others like it.  I was struck particularly by the names of some of the kids that lived here during most of the year.  I remember specifically two names: Johnny Born With A Tooth and Johnny Born With A Gun.  I’m quite sure about these names because they were so distinctive.  I found them so unusual, so foreign to me.  How could anyone be called something like that?

But back to Martin Michaud.  I didn’t really know him.  I knew his brother, Father Guy Michaud, OMI, much better because I went to a private residential school in Edmonton, College St-Jean, a kind of prep school for the French Canadian boys (mostly) west of the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border.  He worked there as director for a short period of time when I was there.  My parents sent me there hoping that I would become a priest, but as it turns out, I became a sociologist instead.  They tell me that I begged them to send me there because all of my friends were going.  That may be, I really don’t remember.  The point is, my experience at College St-Jean, where I got a superior, classical, education, was much different from Johnny Born With A Tooth’s experience at his residential school.   As I said, I didn’t know Martin Michaud.  But given what I know about Indian residential schools, at least as reported in Shingwauk’s Vision by J.R. Miller and What is the Indian ‘Problem.’ by Noel Dyck, among many other reports, and given the stories of pain and grief experienced by residents of the many residential schools in Canada, I wonder about what kind of a man Martin Michaud was.  Noel Dyck points out that in many cases the people who worked in residential schools or as Indian Agents were people with the best of intentions.  The religious personnel of these schools would have believed that the only way to salvation for the poor little Indian children in their care would have been to rescue them from their savage parents and cultures.  This may have entailed using physical punishment to ‘beat the indian out of the child.’  I don’t know what kind of director Martin Michaud was.  I’d like to know.  Obviously, it’s been many years since the residential school I visited was shut down.  I’m hoping there are survivors who can help me determine want kind of a man my ‘uncle’ was.  If you have any information about Martin Michaud or the residential school he directed, please, I’d like to know.  So far, my research hasn’t gotten me too far.  I’m hoping you can help.