Hundreds of people gathered for a walk from the St. Eugene resort and up to a northern hill overlooking the ʔaq̓am Community to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Friday (Sept. 30).
Known as Crying Hill, it’s where Ktunaxa and Indigenous children taken to St. Eugene Mission — formerly a residential school that operated from 1910-1970 — would first see the roof of the building and begin to cry.
Residential school survivors and relatives shared their truths of the hurt and pain caused by the residential school system, the policies of assimilation and the historic and ongoing treatment of Indigenous Peoples.
But amidst the anger, there was dignity, strength and resiliency.
“Certainly today is about the truth,” said Joe Pierre Jr., Nasuʔkin (Chief) of the ʔaq̓am Community, speaking at the top of the hill. “We can only get to reconciliation by understanding the truth.”
The viewpoint from Crying Hill overlooking the ʔaq̓am community. The red roof on the right side of the photo is the St. Eugene building.
The walk began at the St. Eugene building, as a sea of orange shirts and clothing gathered for drumming, songs and prayers from the Suk?ni Singers, before opening remarks from Pierre, who welcomed ʔaq̓am Community members, Ktunaxa citizens and non-Indigenous participants.
Pierre spoke about the meaning of orange shirts and the movement started by Phyllis Webstad, whose orange shirt was taken from her on her first day at the St. Joseph Mission residential school in Williams Lake.
“That’s what happened to her, and the orange shirt has turned into this symbol, a symbol for all of those things that were taken in buildings just like this over the years,” said Pierre, while pointing at the St. Eugene building. “And so I’m very, very mindful about thinking about Phyllis this morning.”
While Sept. 30 has been known as Orange Shirt Day since Webstad first shared her story, it has now also been marked as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation by the federal government, with the first official observance last year.
Creating a national day for truth and reconciliation was one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission documented the testimony of residential school survivors as children, and the legacy of cultural genocide due to their identity, language and ancestral heritage being taken away from them.
Reflecting on the meaning of truth and reconciliation is more than just the residential school system, said Pierre, who listed the historic and ongoing policies of assimilation and enfranchisement, particularly for Indigenous women who lost their legal and ancestral identities when they married someone who was non-status.
“The policy of assimilation, enfranchisement, the treatment of veterans, the treatment of our women, the treatment of our children — to this day — no longer are they going into residential schools; it’s foster care,” said Pierre. “The policy of assimilation continues to this day, and so I’m so happy that you are here today, joining us on this walk.”
The walk was led off by Juanita Eugene, an ʔaq̓am Community leader who inspired the idea for the walk, while joined by Ktunaxa youth passing under the archway of tree branches and onto Mission Road.
Hundreds of people filtered out of the St. Eugene pedestrian entrance and onto the Mission Rd. en route to the top of Crying Hill
The St. Eugene Mission red-brick building was built as the Kootenay Indian Residential School, funded by the Canadian government and opening in 1912.
It closed in 1970 and despite initial plans by the provincial government to turn it into a facility for psychiatric care, the building was stripped of historic fixtures and artifacts and eventually abandoned for 20 years.
However, the Ktunaxa began a process of reclaiming the building in the 1990s as a transformative act of healing and resilience. Today, the restored St. Eugene Mission building hosts Indigenous programming and the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre, as well as serving as a hotel with three dining areas. Adjacent is an 18-hole championship golf course as well as a casino and an RV park.
The St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino opened fully in 2003 and is now wholly owned by the Canadian Ktunaxa bands and the Shuswap Indian Band.
To learn more about the ʔaq̓am Community, visit their website at www.aqam.net
To learn more about the Ktunaxa Nation Council, visit their website at www.ktunaxa.org
Support for survivors and their families is available. Call the Indian Residential School Survivors Society at 1-800-721-0066, or 1-866-925-4419 for the 24-7 crisis line.