The St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino may appear to be like any other carefully renovated historic property at first glance, but its history is unlike that of any other hotel in the world.
The St. Eugene Mission, near Cranbrook, B.C., was a residential school for indigenous children from 1912 to 1970. The facility was one of 130 residential schools that operated in Canada between 1831 and 1996, and it was the first comprehensive Indian Industrial and Residential School established in the Canadian West. St. Eugene was designed to hold 126 students, but in the 1950s and 1960s, up to 200 students lived there. Approximately 5,000 students from British Columbia and Alberta attended the school. Some did not survive the mistreatment, meted out here and in other residential schools.
In 1970, St. Eugene was closed. According to the St. Eugene website, the B.C. government planned to turn it into a psychiatric care facility in 1973. The building was stripped of historic fixtures and artifacts, but the government abandoned the project after spending $750,000 on renovations. It was abandoned for 20 years after the pipes burst the next winter and the building was severely damaged by internal flooding.
St. Eugene Golf Resort & Casino is now owned by a partnership of three First Nations: the Ktunaxa Nation, Chippewas of Rama First Nation, and Samson Cree Nation. One of their main objectives was to promote and share indigenous culture.
Sophie Pierre worked as chief of the Ktunaxa Nation for 26 years, including during the period when the residential school was converted into a resort. Pierre spent nine years of her childhood at the residential school.
She said that “It was a lonely way to grow up. I could stand in the dormitory and look at my home, but I couldn’t visit.”
It took ten years to convert the residential school into a resort. Family visits to the school, “kitchen table” talks and two years of internal marketing to over 1,500 members of the five bands that share the 130 hectares of reserve land started the consensus process. Despite some tribal members trying to burn down the building to erase the harrowing memories, a referendum saw all bands agree to “turn a painful legacy into something positive for future generations,” according to the website.
Band members were able to learn useful skills while gutting and restoring the school, which was stripped down to its red brick walls, thanks to federal job development funds. When in operation, the resort will provide 250 jobs to the community.
Evening storytelling around the fire, bison stew and bannock, traditional crafts, and more are among the activities and experiences available. Indigenous beliefs and culture are shared at the Ktunaxa Interpretive Centre. According to the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, it details the Ktunaxa’s special Sturgeon Nose canoe, which was built for the Kootenay River system’s swampy waterways.
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 — It now features a casino, the Silver Water spa, a pro shop, and a health club in newer buildings adjacent to the mission building, with 25 rooms in the original mission building, which once housed dormitories and other facilities. The health club normally operates a sauna, two hot tubs, and an outdoor swimming pool, but it was closed during the pandemic. The resort expects to reopen all of its facilities in April.
The Kisuk kiki restaurant, which means “good food,” in the redesigned Casino of the Rockies offers local indigenous-inspired dining. Weddings and conferences are also available at the resort.
The championship golf course, designed by par 72 Les Furber, features Kootenay mountain views, rolling woodland, and a few holes along the St. Mary River. Four tee boxes allow for every level of golfer, and golf carts are equipped with GPS. Each hole is called in the Ktunaxa language, and each sign includes a phonetic spelling and translation.
Margaret Teneese, a former resident of a residential school who now works as an interpreter, tells stories about the years she spent in residential school and describes Ktunaxa culture past and present.
She said that “Giving these tours helps me heal. Building the resort has become part of our reconciliation with what happened here.”