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.
tap here to see other videos from our team.
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 four Ktunaxa communities and the Shuswap Indian Band, who together make up St. Eugene Mission Holdings Limited (SHL). 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.”
— Debbie Olsen