At the St. Eugene Residential School – My Deschâtelets “Ah Ha Moment” in B.C.

PETER FROOD

My “ah ha moment” occurred in a KOA RV park near Cranbrook, B.C. .

During the COVID-19 summer of 2020, my wife Francoise and I road-tested an RV that we purchased the previous fall. We navigated COVID-19 regulations across Canada, taking advantage of provincial parks whenever possible.

Our mission was to get to Whistler, B.C. to introduce ourselves to our new grandchild, expected in early August. He arrived on his own time and did glance at us, but quickly drifted off to nap time. We did, however, spend some time with our daughter and her family – but after a week or so, it was time to move on. We were eager to get back home.

The St.Eugene Residential School new Cranbrook B.C. was run by the Oblates from 1912 to 1970 and is now owned by the Ktunaxa Nation. Photo by Peter Frood

The St.Eugene Residential School new Cranbrook B.C. was run by the Oblates from 1912 to 1970 and is now owned by the Ktunaxa Nation. Photo by Peter Frood

When we arrived at the RV park near Cranbrook, we were surprised to learn that it was located on First Nation land and was associated with the St. Eugene Golf and Country Resort, which included a luxury hotel and spa and a golf course. We discovered that this facility was originally the St. Eugene Residential School, run by the Oblate Order from 1912 to 1970, during which 5,000 students attended the school. The school, which was built by Ottawa but turned over to the Oblates for its ongoing operations, closed when federal government policy shifted to support community schooling.

The vacant buildings were taken over by the Ktunaxa Nation in 1990. The Ktunaxa Nation then engaged in an intense healing and consensus-building process regarding the future of the facility. As the resort website notes, elder Mary Paul commented that the school took culture away, so it should be within the building that it is returned. That is exactly what happened.

Chief Sophie Pierre became the champion, working with Ktunaxa members to adapt the school to meet their needs, including training, jobs and economic benefits. A referendum confirmed broad support for the bold development. In quick succession, the main elements of the resort opened – the golf course in 2000, the casino in 2002 and the hotel in 2003. The RV park began operations several years before our visit.

A quietly dramatic sculpture of a boy and a girl is placed outside the St. Eugene Residential School main entrance. A brother and sister, they will soon separated. They touch each other for solace and security, and the girl clenches her fist , clutching her culture, but also perhaps expressing anger and resistance. Photo by Peter Frood

A quietly dramatic sculpture of a boy and a girl is placed outside the St. Eugene Residential School main entrance. A brother and sister, they will soon separated. They touch each other for solace and security, and the girl clenches her fist , clutching her culture, but also perhaps expressing anger and resistance. Photo by Peter Frood

There were eerie similarities between the Deschâtelets Building and the St. Eugene Residential School, reflecting I suspect similar approaches to institutional residential buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century. Like Deschâtelets, access to the St. Eugene school was along a tree-lined Grand Allée. There was an imposing set of stairs leading to the main entrance on the second floor. It must have been awe-inspiring and terrifying for six-year-old children arriving for the first time, alone, to this imposing place.
From their base in Old Ottawa East (OOE), the Oblate Order actively sought to extend the reach of the Catholic Church in Western Canada. I was struck to actually see the reach of the Oblates from their benign presence in OOE. The St. Eugene Residential School was one of a number of residential schools the Order operated in the west with tragic consequences for students and their communities.

It was a sombre experience exploring the hotel and the grounds. A friend, who had stayed at the resort, said that he felt he was never really alone when walking through the halls. I was saddened to learn of the healing process the survivors of the school experienced as they struggled with the consequences of the destructive policies that had been inflicted on them. I am also awed by the way in which the Ktunaxa Nation have re-appropriated an institution of assimilation to create an enterprise for economic sustainability and
cultural renewal.

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