At school, Saul quickly acquires a reputation for being Zhaunagush because he already knows how to speak and read English. Most of his classmates come from Indigenous Canadian communities far away from the river, meaning that they’ve had no contact with the white man.
Because the river where Fish Clan people lived was an important thoroughfare for trade and travel, Saul had contact with white settlers earlier on in life than his classmates.
The children at school are beaten for infractions as simple as uttering Indigenous Canadian words. One ten-year-old boy is punished for speaking his own language by having his mouth washed out with lye—he chokes on the lye and dies. Saul doesn’t receive as many beatings as his peers receive, since he’s good at English.
Children endure grotesque, sadistic punishments that seem designed to hurt them and instill fear in them rather than to educate them.
Saul is miserable at school. Instead of talking to his peers, he stays by himself at all times. His only comfort is reading. Even though the books are written in Zhaunagush, they allow him to temporarily escape from the confines of the school into the world of his books. His teachers interpret his reading as a sign of studiousness, and encourage him to keep it up.
Saul begins to take comfort in reading because it helps him transcend his miserable environment. His love for reading is also perhaps an early indication of his own penchant for storytelling, an important tradition in his own culture.
One of Saul’s classmates is a boy named Arden Little Light, who always has a runny nose and wipes it with his sleeve. To break him of this “bad habit,” Arden’s teachers tie his hands behind his back, so that he sits in class with snot running down his face. He’s six years old. One cold morning, the teachers find his dead body: he has hanged himself. Arden is then buried in a graveyard outside the school.
Many of Saul’s classmates die at school, often because of the teachers’ horrific punishments. In this sense, the school system is not just a part of the cultural genocide being wrought against Indigenous Canadians—it’s a part of the actual, ongoing genocide of Saul’s people.
Sheila Jack is another one of Saul’s classmates. Sheila was trained by her family to become a great shaman, and she’s a beautiful, proud girl. But after a couple months in school, she becomes quiet and frightened. Her teachers beat her for failing to memorize the Christian catechism. One day, the nuns find Sheila sitting in a bog, giggling. She’s later taken away to an insane asylum.
Sheila’s story is yet another example of an Indigenous person with a strong and proud tradition being broken by the imperialist white Christians who claim to be “saving” her and others like her.
Shane Big Canoe, another one of Saul’s classmates, is desperate to run away from school. To prevent him from doing so, the staff lock him in a basement for ten days. When he’s released, he’s not the same, and he can’t stand to sleep in the dark. In all, Saul concludes, school “scraped away at us, leaving holes in our beings.”
Saul’s account of life at St. Jerome’s paints a miserable picture of the impact of the Indian Act on the Indigenous people of Canada: it had the effect of breaking the community’s spirit and undermining the cohesion of their culture and traditions (in fact, many have argued that it was intended to do exactly this).