By Katrina Swift
Less than 10 kilometres from Cranbrook, British Columbia, St. Eugene Indian Residential School was the smallest one in the province. Open from 1898 to 1970, the school was primarily run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity of Providence and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Construction of the main building was completed in 1912.
As a project between the Canadian government and the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches, the residential school system was in operation from 1892 to 1969. However, residential schools for Indigenous children predate Confederation, and the last one, run by the federal government, closed in 1996. Children from surrounding communities and reserves between the ages of 6 and 15 were coerced or taken away from their homes and forced to attend residential schools for 10 months each year, in many cases suffering physical, emotional, cultural and sexual abuse. By the late 1950s, St. Eugene was at its peak with 150 students, and even by its final year, it still had 56 students in residence.
The painful impact of these institutions continues to cut through generations. In Rick Hiebert’s 2002 article in Report Newsmagazine, Chief Sophie Pierre, who attended St. Eugene from ages 6 to 16, says, “…there was this feeling to just blow it up. Knock it down. No one wanted to see it anymore.” But, Pierre continues, they were swayed by the powerful words of Elder Mary Paul. “She said it was within the St. Eugene Mission that the culture of the Kootenay Indians was taken away, and it should be within this building that it is returned.”
In 1996, the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Tribal Council submitted St. Eugene Residential School for designation as a site of national historic significance. According to Geoffrey Carr’s 2009 article in an academic journal, the application was rejected for a number of reasons: the site was going to be changed too radically, it did not satisfy the other criteria for the designations of schools, and finally, there was some wariness to commemorate a place that might be perceived as an embarrassment to the Canadian government. Instead, two years later, Coast Hotels & Resorts and the five bands of the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Tribal Council (St. Mary’s, Columbia Lake, Lower Kootenay, Tobacco Plains and Shuswap) announced that they would turn the historic site into a $30-million resort. The five bands would hold the lease to the property and control all the shares of the development corporation.
Chief Sophie Pierre, the major coordinator of the project, recalls her time at the school as terribly lonely. “Brothers and sisters were kept apart, not allowed to talk to each other,” she says in a 2003 Toronto Star article by Ian Cruickshank. Elder Mary Paul was a key inspiration for this project, saying,“…if you think you lost so much in this building, it’s not lost… You only really lose something if you refuse to pick it up again.” For the Tribal Council to maintain the building, studies showed that a resort would be the most profitable way to proceed. Although most funding came from federal government loans and grants, the Tribal Council made a particular effort to operate the business without governmental help.
The St. Eugene residential school is “…the only project in Canada where a First Nation has decided to transform the icon of an often sad period of its history into a powerful economic engine,” according to the resort’s website, “by restoring an old Indian Residential [S]chool into an international destination resort for future generations to enjoy.”
Critics argue that the redevelopment of St. Eugene has put economic gain before social memory. Carr writes that “…St. Eugene’s bears both the imprint of national contrition and the grotesque, enduring features of colonial violence.” Nevertheless, Chief Pierre takes great pride in how much this project will benefit the community in the long term.
In 2001, the resort’s golf course was named Golf Digest Magazine’s third-best golf course in Canada. According to statistics from Aboriginal Tourism BC, the main demographic group to visit such resorts are upper-middle-class baby boomers. By 2004, after some unfortunate financial struggles and a court order by the B.C. Supreme Court, the project was taken over by the Mnjikaning First Nations of Ontario, the Samson Cree First Nations of Alberta, and the Ktunaxa Kinbasket Tribal Council—effectively maintaining a complete First Nations operation, but with the Tribal Council no longer in its previous position of sole ownership.
Library and Archives Canada plays an important role in the collection and maintenance of information about residential schools across Canada. The records are integral for research regarding claims, architectural plans, and reports of administration and attendance. These records speak to the fact that the Indian residential school system was a deliberate choice by the Canadian government to take care of “the Indian problem,” as it was referred to in many government documents throughout this period.
- Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Indian Residential Schools Located in the Province of British Columbia – One-Page Histories. Government of Canada, 2013.
- Geoffrey Carr. Atopoi of the Modern: Revisiting the Place of the Indian Residential School. English Studies in Canada 35:1 (March 2009): 109–135.
- Ian Cruickshank. Indian chief brains behind resort. Toronto Star (July 5, 2003): J16.
- Rick Hiebert. Holidaying in Auschwitz: a BC indian band is turning an old residential school into a new resort casino [St. Eugene Mission residential school]. Report Newsmagazine 29:1 (January 7, 2002): 54.
- Eugene Golf Resort and Casino, www.steugene.ca.
- Ted Davis. C.’s First Nations welcome the world; Baby boomers are now joining international travellers in exploring the province’s aboriginal-based attractions. CanWest News (June 17, 2008).
Katrina Swift is a master’s student in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University who was doing a practicum in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.