Saturday, July 6, 2019

The St. Eugene Hotel and Mission School

by Kiersti Giron

Some of you may remember my post from a few years ago about the 19th and 20th century boarding schools for Native American children, widely established by both the U.S. government and missionaries to try and "assimilate" Native children into white American culture--often with disastrous results. Native children were taken into similar residential schools in Canada, and my writer friend Marilyn Turk recently directed me to the fascinating story of one of these schools.


St. Eugene Mission Resort, BC, Canada. Photo by WCGT Photos, No copyright infringement intended,
https://i191.photobucket.com/albums/z96/WCGT_photos/DSC01470.jpg.html

Today, visitors can stay in the luxurious St. Eugene Hotel in British Columbia, which boasts a top-rated golf course and adjacent casino, several restaurants, a fitness center and KOA campground, and hosts many conferences. But this hotel has a deeper, darker history than most lodgings you'd find in a AAA handbook. It was built over one hundred years ago as a boarding school for Native children of the Ktunaxa and surrounding peoples.

In 1910, the St. Eugene Mission School was established by the Canadian government and, in a typical church-state collaboration of the time, run by the Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate. It was then called the Kootenay Indian Residential School, and over sixty years educated 5,000 children from the Okanagan, Shuswap, Blackfoot, and Ktunaxa Nations. 
Graduates of the first such boarding school in the U.S.,
 Carlisle Indian School, in the 1890s. By Unknown -
www.readthespirit.com/explore/ecotheology/index.html, Public Domain

As was typical of these boarding schools, Native children were separated from their families' nurture and stripped of their cultural heritage and customs. Their hair was shorn, their traditional clothing taken, and their language forbidden. Tragically, actual mental and physical abuse was common also. Perhaps most damaging was the splitting of families and consequent breakdown of traditional family structure, leading to widespread family dysfunction in Native communities both above and below the Canadian border.

The St. Eugene School finally closed in 1970. After a failed attempt by the government to turn it into a psychiatric care facility, the building, damaged by flooding and vandalism, was left vacant for twenty years.

Native Boarding School students, c. 1900, By Unknown, Public Domain
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4797733
However, this was not the end of the story. Chief Sophie Pierre, herself a former student at St. Eugene, led the drive to turn what had been a place of tragedy and pain for so many of her people into a place of healing and economic growth. She was inspired by the words of their Elder Mary Paul, who 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." 


And as the local Native community held healing ceremonies and "kitchen table talks" in the process of moving forward with the renovation of the school, that indeed began to happen. The main school building was restored by local members of the Ktunaxa band and now forms the central portion of the hotel. While like most new ventures, the enterprise hit some rough spots at first, today the resort is thriving and 100% Native-owned, employing many descendants of students of the boarding school among its staff.

The hotel's history continues an integral part of the enterprise. From photos of the children who lived there that line the halls to an interpretive center sharing Ktunaxa culture, the St. Eugene Hotel never forgets its birth as the St. Eugene Mission School. As their official website says,

"To our knowledge, the St. Eugene Mission is the only project in Canada where a First Nation has decided to transform the icon of an often sad period of its history into a powerful economic engine by restoring an old Indian Residential School into an international destination resort for future generations to enjoy."


What is most fascinating to you about this story? Would you enjoy staying at the St. Eugene Hotel? Why? Please comment and share!



Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines and won the 2013 and 2018 ACFW Genesis Awards - Historical for two of her novel manuscripts. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at www.kierstigiron.com. She lives in California with her husband, their two kitties, and their new baby boy.

4 comments:

  1. Interesting and sad at the same time.

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  2. Wow! What an inspiring idea! Thanks for telling about this transformation. Grace in action!

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  3. How wonderful that those two women took it upon themselves to transform the school. I love happy endings! Thanks for posting the story, Kiersti!

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  4. This was an inspiring post that showed how tragedy could be turned into healing with the determination of Chief Sophie Pierre leading the way. Thank you for sharing this story of our history that is not well known.

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