For more than half a century, the hated brick building of the St. Eugene Mission swallowed up native children and spit them back out, traumatized and damaged from their years of family separation, cultural assimilation and worse.
Even after the Catholic-run residential school closed its doors for good in 1970, deep physical and emotional scars remained.
As the abandoned building deteriorated, most natives wanted it torn down. But the old school, whose three storeys loom over the reserve of the St. Mary’s Band of the Ktunaxa Nation Council, did not succumb to the wrecker’s ball.
Instead, in a remarkable, one-of-a-kind turnaround, the St. Eugene Mission has been transformed into a handsome, upscale hotel, with an adjacent casino and championship, 7,000-yard golf course.
After a faltering start that saw several brand-name hotel partners fall by the wayside and the fledgling development file for bankruptcy, the St. Eugene Resort is on its feet, 100-per-cent native-owned and closing in on its 10th anniversary.
From the painful, destructive legacy of native residential schools, there is no reclamation project quite like it.
“I’ve talked to natives across the country. Many have torn their schools down,” said Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Council, which has a one-third share in the resort. “But you can’t undo the past. For us, doing something so far removed from that building’s original purpose is a way to turn the page.”
On a recent, spectacular summer evening, with sprinklers shooting water over the immaculate greens of the golf course, gamblers streaming into the casino and visitors waiting to register at the 125-room hotel, the building’s dark history seemed worlds away.
Yet the third-floor windows of the school’s former dormitory, where Sophie Pierre slept most of her nights for nine long years, are little changed.
From there, the youngster could peer out the window at her parents’ home just across the St. Mary’s River, but was allowed to visit with them only on the third Saturday afternoon of every month.
“I don’t know which was worse, to be able to see my own home and know I couldn’t go there, or to be in the position of the kids from the Okanagan, who were put on a bus or train in September and they never saw their folks until June,” Ms. Pierre recalled. “It was a very, very difficult way for a child to grow up, where there’s no loving family. No wonder so many of them are screwed up.”
And there was abuse. “With the clergy or the lay adults looking after the kids, there was every type of abuse happening,” she said. “You’d talk to the kids afterward. They’d be crying, so you knew things were not right. With the nuns, that’s where we suffered the majority of our mental cruelty.”
Ms. Pierre, however, was a survivor. Today, she is head of the B.C. Treaty Commission, but during her years as chief of the St. Mary’s Band, her vision and determination helped drive the hotel project through.
It took more than a decade to navigate the difficult shoals of the federal Indian Act to raise the money. “We were five Indian bands without two nickels to rub together, and we managed to put together a $40-million resort,” Ms. Pierre said.
Proponents also had to overcome resistance from those who wanted the building razed. Following two years of community discussion, the thinking of native elder Mary Paul prevailed.
“Since it was within the St. Eugene Mission school that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within the building that it is returned,” she told band members. Ms. Paul’s words are posted in the hotel lobby.
Said Ms. Pierre: “It was our choice what to do with that site, and because there was so much hurt, we decided to turn it into something positive, for ourselves, and I am so proud of our nation for doing that.”
Not all has been smooth sailing. The resort survived bankruptcy in 2003, when the Ktunaxa formed a partnership with the Samson Cree in Alberta and the Mnjikaning First Nations of Ontario to take over the troubled project. And profits have been hard to come by in the current lacklustre economy.
There are also those forever seared by their experiences.
For Chief Cheryl Casimer of the St. Mary’s Band, the memory of her first connection to the residential school is as vivid as if it took place yesterday. One moment her grandmother was teaching her how to tie her shoes, the next moment a truck appeared to take her away. She had no idea what was happening.
“A guy got out and talked to my grandmother. I was steered to the back of the truck,“ Chief Casimer said. “They opened up the canopy and I could see all these faces in there, all these little kids in there, crying. And I was put in there with them.” She was 5.
She has moved on, and is a strong supporter of the resort decision, albeit frustrated by the lack of financial returns to date.
“But when I’m in there doing business, I always remember where I am, and where I was all those years ago. It’s something I‘m able to deal with, but some people still haven’t gone in there since it opened.”