How one residential school morphed from troubled site to tourist resort

Its atypical commercial use hopes to help indigenous people reconcile unfortunate part of Canadian history

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At first glance, the St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino 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 near Cranbrook, B.C. was a residential school for indigenous children. The facility was the first comprehensive Indian Industrial and Residential school to be built in the Canadian West, one of an eventual 130 residential schools operating in Canada between 1831 and 1996. St. Eugene was built to accommodate 126 students, but as many as 200 students lived there during the 1950s and ’60s. In all, about 5,000 children from British Columbia and Alberta came through the school. Some did not survive the mistreatment, meted out here and in other residential schools.

St. Eugene was closed in 1970. In 1973, the B.C. government planned to turn it into a psychiatric care facility, the St. Eugene website says. The building was stripped of historic fixtures and artifacts, but after spending $750,000 on renovations, the government abandoned the project. After the pipes burst the next winter and the building suffered severe damage from internal flooding, it was abandoned for 20 years.

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The residential school building is seen in the background.
The residential school building is seen in the background. Photo by St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino

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). One of their goals was the promotion and sharing of indigenous culture.

Sophie Pierre was chief of the Ktunaxa Nation for 26 years, including the time 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.”

Turning the residential school into a resort took 10 years. Consensus began with family visits to the school, “kitchen table” talks and two years of internal marketing to over 1,500 members of the five bands who share the 130 hectares of reserve land. At the end, the website says, despite some tribal members wanting to burn the building down to erase the harrowing memories, a referendum saw all bands agree to “turn a painful legacy into something positive for future generations.”

Federal job development money allowed band members to learn valuable skills while they gutted and restored the school, stripping the interior to its red brick walls. When in operation, the resort offers 250 jobs for the community. A variety of activities and experiences include evening storytelling around the fire, bison stew and bannock, traditional crafts and more. The Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre shares indigenous beliefs and culture. It details the Ktunaxa’s unique Sturgeon Nose canoe, designed for the swampy waterways of the Kootenay River system, the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada says.

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The resort is a popular spot for wedding parties.
The resort is a popular spot for wedding parties. Photo by St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino

Participants in the two-day Speaking Earth program have the opportunity to hear elders’ fireside stories, scrape hides, bead, play traditional games and to build or sleep in traditional tipis. The resort calls the overall offering “an artful blend of authenticity and comfort in a resort environment with a caring and knowledgeable team.”

Now a 125-room resort — 25 rooms are in the original mission building, which once housed dormitories and other facilities — it features a casino, the Silver Water spa, a pro shop and a health club housed in newer buildings adjacent to the mission building. Though closed during the pandemic, the health club typically runs a sauna, two hot tubs and an outdoor swimming pool. The resort plans to re-open all the facilities some time in April.

The redesigned Casino of the Rockies offers local indigenous-inspired dining at the Kiʔsuʔk k̓ikiⱡ restaurant, meaning “good food.” The resort also books weddings and conferences.

The par 72 Les Furber-designed championship golf course has Kootenay mountain views, rolling woodland and a few holes alongside the St. Mary River. Four tee boxes allow for every level of golfer, and golf carts are equipped with GPS. Each hole is named in the Ktunaxa language, with a phonetic spelling and translation included on each sign.

Margaret Teneese, a residential school survivor and now an interpreter here, tells stories about the years she spent in residential school and describes Ktunaxa culture past and present. “Giving these tours helps me heal,” she said. “Building the resort has become part of our reconciliation with what happened here.”

— with files from Debbie Olsen

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