Editor’s note: The story below may trigger difficult or traumatic thoughts and memories. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society’s 24-hour crisis line is available at 1-866-925-4419.
A poignant ceremony at the St. Eugene resort marked National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as ʔaq̓am and Ktunaxa Nation citizens, along with non-Indigenous community members, gathered for a five-kilometre walk.
The walk had significant meaning, as a group of approximately 100 embarked to ‘Crying Hill,’ a nearby hill where Ktunaxa and Indigenous children, who were sent to attend St. Eugene residential school, would first see the roof and begin to cry — as told by Juanita Eugene, and an explanation passed down from Herman Alpine, a prominent Ktunaxa elder who passed away last year.
Before the walk began, the group gathered in front of the main St. Eugene hotel building for drumming, songs, and prayers. Sophie Pierre, who led ʔaq̓am as an elected chief for over two decades, spoke about her experiences attending the St. Eugene residential school as a child, and the significance of the walk to Crying Hill.
“Very, very happy to see you all here today,” Pierre told the crowd. “This being the first honouring of the Truth and Reconciliation — the declaration that this is a day for reflection, a day for recognizing the truth of Canada’s history with Indigenous people, but most importantly, a day where we can work together, as Canadians, we can work together as neighbours, we can work together as friends.
“And, of course, we always work together as families where we work towards reconciliation.”
Pierre paid tribute to the organizers of the walk, and shared a story from her childhood, when she first attended the former residential school in 1956 at six years old.
Pierre described how she would go on Sunday walks on the school grounds or on the road, which children weren’t allowed to wander away from, looking for chokecherries.
“We would try to sneak off and get a handful of chokecherries, because that kind of reminded us of having something to eat that was our own, that was something that we had grown up on, and that was — of course — not allowed. That was nothing that would have been served here.
“So as you’re walking along, just think about children, and about how resilient they are in ensuring that they keep, that they know — each of the little children here, all of our children — know what it is that they have in their heart, their own identity of who they are and how that continues.
“And in my case, it was just being able to have a handful of chokecherries on a Sunday afternoon.”
On Wednesday (Sept. 29), the Ktunaxa Nation Council issued a statement on National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, as Smokii Sumac, Interim Senior Manager Education And Employment, encouraged people to wear orange, educate themselves, their families and their communities through the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, and reflect on their own histories and relationships to the Ktunaxa and Indigenous peoples.
The history of the St. Eugene Mission dates back to the 1873, when it was founded by the Oblate Order and the first building used as a school, residence and a hospital.
In 1910, the St. Eugene Mission school, also known as the Kootenay Indian Residential School, was funded and built by the Canadian government. Approximately 5,000 children from the Okanagan, Shuswap and Blackfoot Nations, in addition to the Ktunaxa Nation, attended the school, which was operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate under the federal government’s assimilation policies.
It was closed in 1970, and sat abandoned for decades, falling into disrepair and vandalism.
However, in the 1990s, a movement grew to reclaim Ktunaxa heritage and restore the building as a resort, complete with a hotel, golf course and casino.
The golf course opened in 2000, with the casino following two years later, while the St. Eugene Hotel opened its doors in 2003. The resort includes three onsite restaurants and a Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre, which displays handcrafted items and other culturally significant artifacts.
The resort is fully owned by four Ktunaxa communities — ʔakisq̓nuk First Nation, ʔaq̓am, ʔakink̓umǂasnuqǂiʔit (Tobacco Plains), yaqan nukiy (Lower Kootenay) and Kyaknuq+i?it – the Shuswap Indian Band (non-Ktunaxa) who together make up St. Eugene Mission Holdings Limited (SHL).
To learn more about the Ktunaxa Nation, visit their website at www.ktunaxa.org.
To learn more about the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, visit its website at www.nctr.ca. The NCTR continues the work that was started by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and includes links to reports, survivor testimony and the 94 calls to action that were identified by the Commission.