Ottawa Citizen

A NEW MISSION IN LIFE

Hospitalit­y, history and healing at Canada's only residentia­l school-turned-luxury resort

- DEBBIE OLSEN

As my husband and I pulled up in front of the beautifull­y landscaped gardens and ivy-covered stone facade of the St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino near Cranbrook, I had one thought — it looks nice. Really nice. At first glance, St. Eugene looks like any other carefully renovated historic property, but its history is unlike any other hotel in the world.

From 1912 to 1970, the St. Eugene Mission was a residentia­l school for Indigenous children. It was one of more than 130 residentia­l schools that operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996. These church-operated English language residentia­l schools separated First Nations children from their families, their culture and their language. St. Eugene was built to accommodat­e 126 students, but as many as 200 students were crammed into the building during the 1950s and 60s. In all, about 5,000 children from British Columbia and Alberta came through the school. Some did not survive.

We climbed the stone steps and entered what is now the hotel reception area where we were greeted by a friendly young woman behind a large desk. There are 125 guest rooms at the resort — 25 of which are in the original mission building, which once housed dormitorie­s and other facilities. The other 100 guest rooms, the casino, the golf pro shop and the health club are housed inside newer buildings adjacent to the original mission building. The health club has a sauna, two hot tubs and an outdoor swimming pool.

When we were handed our room keys, I was pleased to discover that we would be staying in one of the 25 rooms inside the original historic mission building. Our second-floor room showed no signs of its austere past. It was spacious with big windows that overlooked the gardens at the front of the building, a flat screen TV, a mini fridge and a large bathroom.

We spent that night and the next day enjoying the resort and all its amenities — including the par 72 Les Furber-designed golf course. The championsh­ip course has beautiful mountain views, rolling woodland and a few holes alongside the St. Mary River. There are four tee boxes to accommodat­e every level of golfer and the golf carts are equipped with GPS, so you always know where you're at. Each hole is named in the Ktunaxa language, one of the most interestin­g and difficult languages in the world. A phonetic spelling and translatio­n are included on each sign, so you get a language lesson while you golf.

During my stay, I had the opportunit­y to meet Sophie Pierre, who was chief of the Ktunaxa Nation for 26 years, including the time frame when the decision was made to convert the residentia­l school into a resort. Pierre attended the residentia­l school for nine years of her childhood. “It was a lonely way to grow up,” she said. “I could stand in the dormitory and look at my home, but I couldn't visit.”

Deciding to turn the residentia­l school into a resort was a difficult decision that the band talked about for two years. There were some who wanted to burn the building down. In the end, they made a conscious decision to turn a painful legacy into something positive for future generation­s. The resort creates employment opportunit­ies for people in the community and helps to promote Indigenous culture. The late elder Mary Paul said it best, “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.”

Finding a way to fund the extensive renovation­s needed for the resort's constructi­on was an enormous challenge. Even today, First Nations people who live on reserves do not enjoy the same property rights as other Canadians. Under the Indian Act, First Nations people do not own the land on which a reserve sits. The federal government owns the land. This means they do not have access to capital and therefore have difficulty applying for credit. In most cases, it costs more to fund a project on a reserve than it would to fund the same project off the reserve. This situation represses entreprene­urship and works to increase poverty levels for Indigenous people living on reserves.

St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino

is owned by a partnershi­p of three First Nations, the Ktunaxa Nation, Chippewas of Rama First Nation and Samson Cree Nation. A great deal of work went into obtaining funding and building the resort. One of the goals of the project was to promote and share Indigenous culture. This is accomplish­ed with a variety of activities and experience­s offered to hotel and RV guests at the Tipi Village near the RV park. During peak season, guests can enjoy evening storytelli­ng around the fire, bison stew and bannock, traditiona­l crafts and more.

The Ktunaxa Interpreti­ve Centre, on the lower level of the historic mission building, also explains and shares Indigenous beliefs and culture. During my stay, I arranged a 90-minute tour of the interpreti­ve centre and the mission building with Margaret Teneese, a residentia­l school survivor. As we wandered through the halls, Teneese told stories about the years she spent in residentia­l school and explained Ktunaxa culture past and present.

“Giving these tours helps me heal,” she explained. “Building the resort has become part of our reconcilia­tion with what happened here.”

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. Mary Paul

 ?? DEBBIE OLSEN ?? Prefabrica­ted in Italy in 1897, the St. Eugene church sits near the site of the former St. Eugene Mission school, a residentia­l school for Indigenous children that is now a luxury resort with a par 72 golf course.
DEBBIE OLSEN Prefabrica­ted in Italy in 1897, the St. Eugene church sits near the site of the former St. Eugene Mission school, a residentia­l school for Indigenous children that is now a luxury resort with a par 72 golf course.
 ?? GREG OLSEN ?? A small sculpture called The Children stands on the grounds of what is now the St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino. It's a haunting reminder of the building's unique and troubling past as a residentia­l school.
GREG OLSEN A small sculpture called The Children stands on the grounds of what is now the St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino. It's a haunting reminder of the building's unique and troubling past as a residentia­l school.
 ?? GREG OLSEN ?? The steak sandwich is a delicious choice at St. Eugene resort's 19th Hole Restaurant. The resort will soon be implementi­ng a new menu with a greater emphasis on Indigenous culinary offerings.
GREG OLSEN The steak sandwich is a delicious choice at St. Eugene resort's 19th Hole Restaurant. The resort will soon be implementi­ng a new menu with a greater emphasis on Indigenous culinary offerings.
 ?? DEBBIE OLSEN ?? The view from the window of a second-floor hotel room is atmospheri­c with ivy vines.
DEBBIE OLSEN The view from the window of a second-floor hotel room is atmospheri­c with ivy vines.

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