The St. Eugene Mission is the only residential school in Canada to be converted to a fashionable resort.
North of Cranbrook, beside the St. Mary River, with the soaring Rocky Mountains in the background, lies a little cemetery. Simple wooden crosses with peeling white paint, some fallen over, look lost amongst the tall untended grass and weeds. It’s as though this graveyard and those buried here have been abandoned, forgotten.
About 200 metres away, across an immaculately mown green fairway, sits an elegant three-story red-brick building with ivy on the walls and a simple cross high on top: the St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino. One couldn’t imagine a greater contrast. The resort is attractive and distinctly upscale with an 18-hole championship golf course, a casino, a hotel with 125 rooms, meeting spaces, fine dining and well-stocked bars. The resort, which also includes a spa and first-class entertainment, is a sought-after destination for weddings and other high-end functions.
It’s a bittersweet story, for the cemetery and the resort are connected, and in a heart-rending manner. The St. Eugene Mission, also known as the Red Brick Schoolhouse, was operated by the Catholic Oblates Order from 1908 to 1970 as a residential school for Native children. It was the first Indian ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian west and during its lifetime about 5,000 children passed through its hallways. In reality, it was more a house of horrors where thousands of children were forced away from their homes, traumatized and abused. And a number of them lie in the wind-blown graveyard, never having returned to their families.
But a dramatic and inspirational transformation took place. After the facility sat derelict for two decades, decaying and frequently vandalized, the St. Mary’s Band of the Ktunaxa Nation decided it was time for a change. As Elder Mary Paul said in 1984 …
“Since it was within the St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”
A movement to preserve the school was led by former Chief Sophie Pierre. Although some wanted to eradicate the building along with its bad memories, a referendum voted in favour of restoration.
Between 2000 and 2003, the resort and the adjacent golf course and casino were built. The school was gutted, stripping the interior back to its brick walls. The old red bricks, fired in neighbouring Fernie more than a century ago, were tastefully enhanced with rich, dark woodwork and are a major feature of the renovated facility. After some initial difficulties the resort is now thriving, and has recently been expanded to include a RV park. As Chief Pierre said, “We’re creating new memories for our children.”
Although the St. Eugene Mission is the only residential school in Canada to be converted to a fashionable resort, old memories have not been erased. Instead they are preserved and intertwine with the modern features. The three-storey building is like a museum, a memorial to the past. Paintings show historical figures. Ghosts walk the corridors and sigh in the former classrooms.
At the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre, which is located in the Mission building and includes an arts and crafts shop, displays explain the Ktunaxa First Nations art, culture and history, which stretches over 10,000 years. On display are historic photographs, scale models of traditional tipis, a sturgeon-nosed canoe and other artifacts. The Centre shows how Native culture is in close harmony with nature.
A must-see video, Survivors of the Red Brick School, vividly reveals the traumas inflicted at the mission, and how, even today, many survivors are still struggling to overcome the psychological and physical damage that was inflicted. No one leaves with a dry eye.
Now the Ktunaxa Nation is taking another innovative step. An experiential program called The Speaking Earth is being launched where guests, by participating in native customs led by band members, learn how native traditions are deeply connected to the land. Over two days and nights guests will hear stories and legends, scrape hides, learn to bead, play traditional games, and will sleep in tipis. It is hoped the program will be expanded to include tours to nearby First Nations cultural and natural sites such as the Ainsworth Hot Springs.
The Ktunaxa First Nation is proud of the St. Eugene Resort, and they have every right to be. It represents an innovative and powerful step forward in curing the deep wounds caused by colonialism. An icon of a wretched time has been transformed into an international destination resort. The spirits in the cemetery have not been abandoned.
If You Go:
St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino information and bookings: steugene.ca
The Ktunaxa Experience: speakingearth.ca
Ktunaxa First Nation: ktunaxa.org
Regional tourism: tourismkimberley.com and cranbrooktourism.ca