Monthly Archives: October 2015

Notes from a Thai Island…singing birds in bamboo cages

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IMG_0285 (1)We packed our pens and notebooks for a grown-up field trip. With our hats donned and cameras poised, the destination was Koh Panyee, in the inlet of Thailand. I had been here before with my family. This time however, a writing assignment was on my mind.

The village of Koh Panyee is surrounded by shadowy, fingerlike mountains. Reaching up from calm waters, they are serene, yet evocative and mysterious as they entice visitors into their enclave.

As our longboat glides into the harbour, we circumvent fish lines and crab traps, and groups of traditional longboats. This is how one arrives in Koh Panyee…for it’s a village that resides on bamboo stilts.

IMG_0305Sturdy longboats have long been the desired mode of transport in these waters. A solid column rises from their prow like an IMG_0426upturned tail. Adorned with vibrant tassels of cloth, I’m told they protect the safety and spirit of the vessel.

Thai people believe that each mode of transport possesses a spirit, so best to honour and respect it. The swishes of cloth compliment the often brightly painted vessels and provide a grip for fishermen to drag their boats home into shallow waters.

Koh Panyee’s population is descended from just two seafaring Muslim families. Settling here at the end of the 18th century, the fishing trade that they established is still evident as we disembark on the simple dock. Bamboo fish traps rest on knotted planks, tangles of nets cluster on poles and colourful netted piles lay at the ready.

A puzzle of spartan homes and shop fronts greet visitors to Koh Panyee. This once secluded island has welcomed tourism. ‘James Bond Island’ is nearby which attracts  sightseers and snorkelers alike.

IMG_0310After disembarking, we wander the humid labyrinth that offers the usual array of elephant printed skirts, frocks, sarongs and slouchy bags. By day five in Thailand, we’re a little more discerning and hope for something unique.

And we soon find it. Fresh water pearls are here in abundance with their milky shades of cream, lemon and white, on offer for a pittance.

A vast array of sea shells is also displayed, much of it having been fashioned into jewellery, key chains and tinkling chimes. It crosses your mind…does it eventually all get sold?Perhaps stuffed into suitcases and carried off to other lands where it’s appreciated…or sadly, perhaps not?

And then there is the abundant coconut merchandise, carved into spoons, bowls and combs or left in its organic form of IMG_0306cooling coconut juice. Hollowed coconut shells appear stuffed with orchids, hanging here and there, thriving in the sultry air.

I notice slivers of bamboo that have been coaxed into welcome mats, baskets, water buckets, paddy-bins and rice vessels.

Rice is vital to daily life; what with carrying, threshing, winnowing and measuring of its vital staple. Pliable cane is also abundant and forms the basis of many kitchen essentials.

IMG_0325Most of all the bird cages speak to me. Intricate strips of bamboo have been crafted into round, square or hexagonal enclosures. They’re not gilded, but somehow the earthy material seems less restrictive for the ruffled birds that inhabit them. Cages hang in most store fronts, between narrow strips of buildings and in shady corners of simple homes.

The lyrical chirps and serenades seem to lighten the lanes and distract from the still, suffocating air. I ask about the cages as I approach a shop.

Sawadee-kaa,” a man greets me as he comes forward from the shadows of his home to his shop front. His batik sarong is knotted at his lean waist and he seems open to conversation.

“Bird competitions very important in Southern Thailand,”he tells me with a knowing smile.

“High status to have winning bird. Which bird can sing best, longest, maybe happiest.” TheIMG_0387 affection for his feathered friends radiates from his eyes.

“What kind of birds do you have,” I ask, noticing multiple cages in his home.

“Red-whiskered Bulbul,” he says proudly, “the best, sing better, ka?  Must have tropical fruit first, no sing without sunshine.”
“Hmm, I didn’t know,” I admit, and it dawns on me that I’m surrounded by more than just pet birds. They’re performers, competitors, even prize winners. And they’re discerning.

“Rainy day very bad,” the shop keeper assures me, motioning to the patter of rain on the tin awning above us.

IMG_0321I discover that competitions are cancelled if there’s rain, for seemingly the birds are only willingly to serenade when the sun shines. Competitions are held in open fields with the location only revealed to those who enter, and maybe to those who want to bet a bhat or two. And perhaps not surprisingly the earthly competitors are men…it seems it’s a man’s pastime.

I linger at the cages, watching the birds flutter and flit. It’s easy to adore these delicate aviary homes and appreciate the valuable species inside them. I check the latches of their tiny doors; and yes, they’re most certainly locked.

We make our way out of the covered market street, desperate for a breath ofIMG_0356 air. The chatter of school children greet us as they slide into their shoes that await outside the classroom doors. The open-air school transports me back to schools that my sons attended in Qatar and Oman with their hallways open to the elements. As here, I find it creates a joyous, uninhibited atmosphere as children go about their studies and play. Happy memories of my children’s early school days flood back to me and I am transported by the familiar scene.

IMG_0363This island school is awash with colours of pink, baby blue and sea green; uniforms for both girls and boys alike IMG_0351are a soft pink. The youngsters play tag, giggle for photos and gather for after-school band practice. It’s difficult to pull myself away from their carefree presence.

But the moment is soon lost as yet more tourists pace through the school yard. I peek down a side hallway for quiet. I delight in a scribbled note on a chalkboard in both English and Thai. I gaze out to the calm of the scenery that encloses Koh Panyee. Yet more boats crammed with eager tourists are edging their way towards the stilted settlement, eager to see the sights – part of me is dismayed with our intrusion.

IMG_0367I imagine there is a serenity that returns to this community at nightfall, when the tourists retreat and the waters are silent from boat engines. Around 1700 souls live here and I’ve been welcomed into their unique way of life. For the villager’s sake, I hope their culture is preserved despite the continuous curiousity of tourists.

Today, I was yet another of those tourists. I took away some strands of pearls and appreciated the ‘little things’…like intricate bamboo bird cages, smiling children absorbed in their school day and the camaraderie of fellow writers on a field trip that we Phuket Paradise Writer’s, happily found ourselves on.

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The Ktunaxa people, Gordie’s story…part two

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The former St. Eugene Mission School on an autumn day

This is a continuation from part one

“My grandmother brought me to the school, it was 1957. We pulled up in a horse and buggy, my brother and sister were already here which helped a little.”

I’m standing with Gordie at the bottom of the steps that lead to the imposing door of the St. Eugene Mission; once a Residential School. It’s easy to imagine the foreboding, the instinctive fear that young Native children like Gordie felt when they entered the school for their first ten month term.

“I was frightened and remember the feeling of resentment towards my grandma. She had helped raise me, it wasn’t until later that I realized she didn’t have a choice but to let me go.”

Gordie is tall and lean, his long greying hair topped by a baseball cap. It’s the tradition of many Natives to keep their hair long as it’s an extension of their spiritual self.

Having offered to give me a tour and talk about his time at the school, Gordie greets me warmly this cool autumn morning. He’s just finished his shift as the night-time superintendent of the St Eugene Mission Resort. As a student, Gordie lived and breathed this school, his memories deeply etched. He now walks through it with some measure of peace.

From 1912 to 1970, more than 5000 Native children were removed from their families to comply with the government assimilation program and brought to this school, one of eighty former schools across Canada. However, its perfect postcard setting in the interior of British Columbia is deceptive.

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Refurbished and renewed

“I suppose I was lucky, I was dropped off by a family member. Some kids were left here by Indian Agents, whisked away before their families even knew they were gone.”

Gordie explains the cruel truth that Agents were often paid to ‘round up’ Native children, especially in remote areas. The children were sometimes taken when they ran to a plane that had landed, then spirited away with the promise of a ‘ride’.

“They were given a number, with no consideration of their name, then placed in a Residential School.”

Gordie will tell you that this was by no means the worst of the Residential Schools. The entrance of the former St . Eugene Mission School is now a hotel lobby. It has a welcoming and dignified atmosphere, vastly different than it once was. Solid in their longevity, the red brick walls are invisibly marred with strife and untold hurts. People like Gordie are now willing to tell their story.

“Our hair was chopped off, and from that moment the school did its best to eradicate our language and culture. This is where you waited to be taken away by the nuns to the dormitories.”

‘Indian Hall’, I believe Gordie called it as we begin a tour and conversation that lasts five hours, yet felt like just a few. He points to a black and white photo near the front desk. The image shows a group of older girls, smiling astride their horses, gathered in front of the school.

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Gordie Sebastian with a plaque that pays tribute to his role in the refurbishment of St. Eugene Mission

“Do you know anything about horses?” Gordie asks, pointing to their bridles and saddles. “Does this look like we were poor or wanting? No we had a culture, it was taken away.”

I’m instinctively drawn to the collection of photos in the nearby corridor that I had been so taken with the day before. Gordie reveals parts of his story through these, bringing the images to life with his narrative.

A seemingly typical school is portrayed; a hockey team, the school band, a choir, children in uniforms seated at their desks.

“It looks like you were involved in a lot of activities?” I ask.

“We were. Saturday was hockey, we also had a baseball field,” Gordie tells me.

“Are you in any of these?” I wonder as my finger scans over children positioned in front of the school steps. Standing behind the children are a number of priests and nuns some dressed in black habits, others in white.

“No, I usually had some kind of injury when it was time for photos. One time I had a bruise on my eye from a hockey puck so couldn’t be in it, it might have looked like I had been hit by one of the staff…”

Gordie is referring to the now well-documented mental, physical and sexual abuse, even death, that students suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns who came from afar to work in these schools.

“I didn’t have as many issues as some. I was from one of the more respected Native families so usually safe from the abuse of the staff and other students. My dad held some sway.”

Gordie Sebastian comes from a long line of prominent Ktunaxa who owned and bred horses. He points to a photo of a group of men, four sit on their horses. One of them wears a blanket, tucked-in at the waist.

“That’s my great-grandfather, Sabas, Joseph Sebastian. He was a medicine man.”

A medicine man was a highly respected member of an Indian tribe. They were healers or ‘shaman’ who didn’t believe in bloodshed.

Gordie explains that Sabas and the tribal head at the time, Chief Isadore, believed that no man had the right to erect fences on the Ktunaxa land. This held fast until European and Canadian settlers usurped their ancestral land following the signing of Treaty 7 in 1887. This treaty confined the First Nations peoples to Reserves where many of the Ktunaxa stil live today.

Gordie gestures to the photo of St. Eugene Mission, the once cluster of tipis and houses around the church where his forebears would have gathered.

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Red brick walls

He shows me a detail that had escaped me. A house stands with the top of a tipi sticking out from its roof. Like most First Nations, the Ktunaxa people didn’t adapt well to the confines of a house.

“That’s Indian Pete’s house, set his tipi up in the middle of it.”

In another photo dated 1887, a man dressed in baggy trousers and a waist coat stands in front of the St. Eugene Church. He smiles widely, beside him is a priest. They seem to know each other.

“That’s Father Coccola and Indian Pete. They paid to have the church built. In fact Indian Pete paid our way into heaven,” Gordie says with a  chuckle.

Gordie is open and candid as he explains the more serious and devastating impact the Residential Schools have had on generations of First Nations people.

“But I’ve also been told by some people that these were the best of days, away from poverty and their alcoholic parents on the Reserves.” Gordie explains that many parents weren’t well adapted to parenting as they only saw their children during the two-month summer break and perhaps for a few hours once every three weeks. Also, many of them had been students themselves; their own wounds ever present.

“My father was a student here, he never told me but I think he had been sexually abused. He always checked us for signs.” Gordie says quietly.

We talk about the Priests and Nuns whose frequent indifference to their students’ humanity exacted so much pain.

“Some of the priests weren’t that bad, but the nuns were battle-axes. Some of them could teach well enough but they had little or no compassion. Through their actions we were taught hate. It was drilled into our heads that we were useless…little more than savages.”

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The healing power of the tipi

Perhaps because of Gordie’s influential family, he reports having pushed the envelope a little further than other students. By the time he was a young teenager, he railed against his situation.

“One time I argued with a nun over a basic fact that she was teaching,” Gordie confided. “Now you know that St. Eugene Mission sits between two mountain ranges, the Rockies and the Purcells. Well she had the two ranges mixed up and I told her so. We argued back and forth, I wasn’t backing down. All of a sudden she hit me and I pushed back.”

Gordie was made to sit in the Priests’ office for the day as punishment. Once he told his side of the story, he wasn’t reprimanded further.

“Did she teach the correct mountain ranges after that,” I ask.

“Oh no, she kept telling us the wrong thing,” he says, making light of the story all these years later.

But not all punishment was that easy. Male students who ran away from the school were often found again by the Indian Agents and returned to the school. For the next two weeks they were forced to dress as girls. As shaming as this would have been, it pales into comparison of other punishments that Gordie leaves untold.

I’m particularly haunted by Gordie’s accounts of the tuberculosis outbreaks. Nodding to a photo of a clearly ill student, his head bandaged, he precedes to tell me of the infectious conditions that existed in the school.

“That student had TB, he shouldn’t have been with other students,” Gordie says ruefully. The rate of deaths in the schools from influenza and TB far exceeded that of anywhere else in Canada.

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The St. Eugene Mission Resort and Golf Course

Unlike many Residential Schools, only one death occurred here.

“This is her,” Gordie says pointing to a young girl. “She died when snow fell onto her from the roof. It’s good that her relatives have been here. Her name was Anette.”

Gordie and I have coffee in the former chapel. It’s being readied for a function and we sit at a long table that will soon be set with linen and fine china. I’m told that healing occurs at St. Eugene on a regular basis. As painful as it is, many former students and their families return to confront the hurts of the past.

“The tipi outside is there for a reason. Even as the school was being re-purposed, it was provided for prayers and counselling.”

We glance out towards the tall white canvas. I learn that the poles of a tipi represent the different spiritualities of all people, yet they are bound together as one.

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A painting of Elder Mary Paul

“Facing the past is difficult, but it brings peace. Just as Elder Mary Paul gave us the permission to do so.”

Gordie had pointed out the painting of Elder Paul as we entered the lobby. It is with her blessing that the re-construction of this building was undertaken.

We make our way upstairs to the ‘inner sanctuary’ of the school. Now mostly hotel rooms, Gordie points out the areas which were once dormitories, kitchens and mess halls. The rooms of the nuns and priests were close by.

My sense of this building’s history is suddenly very real. I’m shown the place where Gordie’s bed had stood. We look toward the window and beyond, where the road lies.

“At least I was able to look out of the window and see my father or grandfather pass on the road once in a while. Many kids were far, far from home.”

I’m shown where a young boy stood on a precarious ledge while attempting to run away. I see the burn marks from two arson attempts on the school. I become emotional as I contemplate the daunting stairs that girls as young as four had to negotiate in the middle of the night to go to the washroom. I feel their loneliness, the longing for their home, the yearning for a mother’s touch.

“There are 68 stairs,” Gordie tells me. “I should know, it was my job to sweep and scrub them.”

He tells me it was here that a young student was kicked down the stairs by a priest, tumbling helplessly to the bottom. Thankfully he lived.

a-first-nation-partnership-success-story-8-638“One of the workers saw it happen and pinned the priest up against the wall by the throat. He warned him never to hurt a student again,” Gordie recounts. “The next day we noticed that all of the straps had been removed from the classrooms.”

As the students reached their mid teens, I imagine control must have become more difficult. By the time Gordie is this age, one of the ‘Fathers’ uses government money to fund a swimming pool and provide horses for the students. Gordie takes on the role of the ‘horse guy.’

“Finally on Sunday afternoons we were allowed to leave the school premises and ride free on our land.”

I agree with Gordie how important that must have been; that sense of independence and freedom. This also evolved naturally as the older students were sent to a local school to complete their education.

“It didn’t get much better for us. We weren’t Native anymore and we weren’t ‘white’, so we didn’t fit in. We were ‘apples’…white on the inside but red on the outside.”

Gordie was eventually asked to leave his new school over an incident that he didn’t explain. When his father found out, he was also told to leave the house. He was 17 and on his own; he went north to work in the logging industry.

I don’t hear the entire story of the years between then and now. But I know a number of family members passed away because of alcohol abuse. I know Gordie is raising the young daughter of a relative who still battles with the trauma of Residential School.

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Solace and Peace

I also know that Gordie is one of the good guys. Not only is he helping to heal his own family, but also many of those who walk through the doors of St. Eugene Mission. They seek solace and peace from the past.

I admire Gordie greatly.

An autumn of colour, a discovery of the Ktunaxa people…part one

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“Dappled with crimson, copper and golden leaves”

There are times when a story travels along an unexpected path, bringing you to a place you were hesitant, yet curious to venture into. Once enveloped and drawn into its emotion, you know you must share it.

Autumn foliage against a blue metal roof

Fall, against a blue metal roof

I set out with the intention of writing something less significant than the story that unfolded. I simply wanted to convey the splendour of autumn in Kimberley and the East Kootenays.

This broad valley, book-ended by the Purcell mountains and the Rockies, is ablaze with colour. Nature has dappled crimson, copper and golden leaves onto a backdrop of stately pines and tall firs…a vast Monet canvas, breathtaking in its scale. Evening skies parade spectacular vistas as alpenglow brushes lavender and indigo over jagged peaks. Each dusk comes just that little bit earlier as autumn settles in and winter looms.

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Hues of autumn

It’s unusual that I’m here to appreciate this season. This time last year I had just joined my husband in Kazakhstan and recall yearning for the hues and trappings of autumn.

It’s now before me; a riot of nature, a time of harvest and impending hibernation. I marvel at the changes in our yard/garden where deep ruby leaves cling to barbed branches, nature’s natural deer proofing. Delicate red maple leaves flutter onto the lawn, each one cookie-cutter perfect. I see the familiar doe grazing nearby. Her two fauns have grown through the summer, their white Bambi-like patches now replaced by a thick coat that will warm them through the first winter.

A trail of delicate leaves

A trail of delicate leaves

And so I’ve revelled in these tranquil days…treasuring time with friends and family, savouring walks through fallen leaves, climbing the ski hill to be awed and inspired. An early dusting of snow on the mountains hints at nature’s march of the seasons.

In the spirit of autumn, I sign up for a canning workshop. We chop plump tomatoes, garlic, onions and luscious peppers. Large steaming canning pots transform the colourful chunks into flavourful homemade salsa. We work together to sieve the recipe into tiny mason jars, dunking them back into boiling water to preserve.

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Plump tomatoes and luscious peppers

Mason jars of prized preserves

Throughout the evening we laugh and learn with new people. I meet Dirk from Wildsight. He and his colleagues work within the community to protect regional ecology and promote sustainable lifestyles. Organizing grass-root events and workshops along with the Kimberley Farmer’s Market, Wildsight champions many issues that locals are passionate about.

As we leave the workshop with our prized preserves, Dirk implores us to use the Open Gate Garden, a communal vegetable patch.

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Kimberley Open Gate Garden

“You don’t have to work in it, but there’s still vegetables to be had,” he says encouragingly. Taking him on his word, the next day I fill a small basket of tasty sharp arugula and leafy kale. I chide myself that I hadn’t known about the garden throughout the summer but resolve to do some weeding here next summer. A meagre contribution for the opportunity to pick fresh produce at will. Vegetable gardens in Kimberley are typically fenced from the groups of deer that roam and help themselves to weeds, flowers and those elusive veggies.

The mingling of reds

The mingling of reds

Colours beckon at every turn. Metal roofs of reds, greens and blues cap many buildings in Kimberley; vivid backdrops for the changing foliage. More importantly metal sheeting is practical, helping shed the thick blankets of winter snow…to be honest the odd spring or autumn snowfall as well!

“Vivid backdrops for the changing foliage”

This technique of roofing, adapted in Quebec in the late 18th century, was referred to as ‘metal roofing Canadian style.’ Wonderfully they suit this mountain town. Actually Kimberley is a small city, competing with a few others as the city with the highest elevation in Canada.

On one of those rare Sundays that I’m alone, I drive a short while and take a walk on a warm, cloudless afternoon. With my tinkling bear bell and pepper-spray ready at my hip, I climb a butte, an almost conical hill rising from the valley floor. It’s a walk that invites reflection…it overlooks the traditional land of the Ktunaxa, the Kootenay.

I gaze out over barbed wire and faded green fence posts, out to distant horses grazing in tawny fields. The majestic Rocky Mountains rise above this ancestral home of the Ktunaxa. I’ve tramped through here before but today I linger, conjuring an image of a time when horses roamed free and tipis dotted the landscape.

Looking out the land of the Ktunaxa

Gazing out to the land of the Ktunaxa

A mere 130 years ago, this land was all theirs. They were not nomadic people ‘just passing through’. They had hunted, fished and gathered in this territory for more than 10,000 years. The Ktunaxa lived a spiritual life, in complete rhythm with the land. Obtaining all their food, medicine, clothing and shelter from nature, their reverence for this land was rooted in their culture. Then it all changed…abruptly.

A few days later, I find myself on their reserve, ostensibly to take a few photos. Or was it with the hope that I’d learn something, draw someone into conversation, make a connection?

St. Eugene Mission Church

St. Eugene Mission Church

I meet Dorothy Alpine.

I drive into the ‘new’ school yard of the Ktunaxa. The playground is alive with chatter. The school is attractive with its basic architecture, standing in the shadow of St. Eugene Mission Church. I take photos of the church and its fading white facade. Its precarious yet enduring steeple and crosses, all set against an impossibly blue sky. Built in 1897, it seems out of place on this patch of open prairie, encircled by low rolling hills that merge into the mountains beyond.

I soon chat with a lady enjoying the afternoon sun and casually ask about the history of the church. I broach that other subject; the old school, the former ‘Indian Residential School’ across the road.

“You’re in luck!” she tells me. “There’s Dorothy driving up, she’s the one you should speak to.”

I’m introduced and Dorothy graciously invites me into the school. As the Traditional Knowledge and Culture Instructor for this tribe of the Ktunaxa, the St. Mary’s band, she is committed to preserving the history and culture of her people. She is petite with a warm smile and kind eyes.

A steadfast steeple and crosses

steeple and crosses

“This was all the St. Eugene Mission,” Dorothy says, the sweep of her hand indicating not only the church, but also encompassing the cluster of wooden houses and tipis that surrounded it at the end of the 19th century.

“Right here was the meeting place of our people, the tribes of the Ktunaxa whose land stretched to the areas of Creston, Fairmont, Windermere and into Alberta, Montana, Washington and Idaho.” I would later read it was a vast 70,000 square kilometres of land; the size of Scotland.

Dorothy takes the time to write the names of the other ‘bands’ in the Ktunaxa language. Zaq’am she writes for St. Eugene Village.

Dorothy Alpine, framed by a colourful rendition of the 'new' school

Dorothy Alpine, with a colourful painting of the ‘new’ school

“Back in my grandfather’s time, about 1884, there was already a one room school that the missionaries had set up. Eventually Father Coccola was put in charge here.”

Father Nicolas Coccola was French and ventured to the ‘wilds’ of Western Canada in 1881. He would ultimately spend 63 years as a missionary, working with eight different First Nation Tribes. Tasked with the charge of St. Eugene Mission in 1887, Father Coccola also taught, provided medical attention and built houses. He had the help of the Sisters of Providence.

“They did a lot of good,” Dorothy says, “but we didn’t adapt well to houses. Our houses were mostly tipis, we had the first mobile homes after all,” she quips with a chuckle.

“Is it true that Father Coccola built the St. Eugene church, I hear most of it was transported from Italy?”

“Yes that’s true but it wasn’t just him, there was Indian Pete as well.”

I learn that soon after Coccola arrived in the area he staked a claim with a partner, Pierre Cronin, or Indian Pete as he was known. They had discovered valuable ore. Before long the St. Eugene mine yielded a good return, allowing both men to contribute to the the building of St. Eugene Mission Church.

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Explaining the creation story of the Ktunaxa

Dorothy explains that despite the Ktunaxa’s creation story, they believe that different beliefs are all under one God. Going to church was therefore a continuation of their spiritual experience to some extent and most importantly, a meeting place.

The Government and the arrival of European settlers had not only stripped the First Nations of vast amounts of land (which led to Indian Reserves) but also of their right to hold traditional gatherings and ceremonies, such as the potlatch. Thus for many of the Ktunaxa, the church was very much a compromise for what they had lost.

The Mission grew into a self-supporting community with the first flour mill in the region, a school and hospital. Yet I know that things changed drastically in 1912; the year that St. Eugene Mission School was built.

Residential schools were established by the government with the intent of ‘taking the Indian out of the child’ and assimilation to the ‘white man’s culture’. The St. Eugene Mission was the first comprehensive ‘Industrial and Residential’ school to be built in the Canadian West.

It’s a striking Spanish-Colonial style building that rises abruptly out of the prairie, incongruous even in its stately beauty. I’m well aware that the walls of these former Residential schools hold stories that are difficult to comprehend.

“Dorothy did you go to the school?”

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St. Eugene Mission area in the late 1800’s

“Oh yes and my two sisters as well, we had no choice. Our parents would have gone to jail if we hadn’t.”

I learn that Federal law dictated that all First Nation children were to attend Residential schools; to be assimilated and stripped of their language, culture, even their families.

But Dorothy relates mostly good stories of learning the basics and valuable skills.

“Some of the nuns were better teachers than others, I remember singing away most of grade 5, didn’t learn much that year.”

When I ask how often she was allowed to see her parents, Dorothy tells me that it was only the third Sunday of each month, and two months in the summer. She doesn’t dwell on it and brings the conversation back to the present-day.

“Things are getting better. Our children are learning but also exposed to their own language and culture again. We hold pow wows every summer, we’re trying to move forward.”

After expressing my thanks and taking leave, the storied building across the road beckons to me. It didn’t close until 1970 when the government changed their policy. A plan to turn it into a facility for psychiatric care faltered. Stripped of its original fixtures and artifacts, it lay abandoned for more than twenty years; a constant reminder for the Ktunaxa people of that dark period.

Eventually the Ktunaxa, the Samson Cree Nation and Chippewa’s of Rama First Nations formed a partnership. Since the early 2000’s, the transformed building has welcomed people far and wide as the St. Eugene Mission Resort, Golf Course and Casino.

It’s a success story of healing, through rebuilding. By sheer determination and tenacity, an old Indian Residential School has become a powerful economic engine, but not before families and former students were invited back to confront and lay the ghosts of the past.

Dorothy had made this very clear. “Our beloved elder Mary Paul gave us the strength to go forward.” In 1984, Elder Paul had declared, “Since it was within St. Eugene Mission School that the culture of the Kootenay Indian was taken away, it should be within that building that it is returned.”

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The St. Eugene Mission with Fisher Peak rising in its shadow

It’s late afternoon by now and I walk almost reverently through the Resort. The walls of the former school have been stripped down to the original reddish brick and they do seem to talk. Many beautifully framed black and white photos from the school days are arranged along the solid walls; I have a thousand questions. I sit in the cozy Fisher Peak lounge, the Peak itself framed brilliantly through the tall paned windows.

I ask the waitress if she knew what this room had been in the school.

“If you want to know more, you should speak to Gordie, our night watchman. His father came here, as did he. He knows pretty much everything.”

At that point, I want the full story to unfold full circle. Around me people are dining and enjoying a drink, staff members both First Nations and non, work side by side. Great strides have been made.

I leave my number, hopeful, but not fully expecting a call. My phone rings at 7:15 the next morning.

It’s Gordie. “I just got off work and was given your number. I hear you want to come for a tour and talk.”

I arrive at 10 that morning, notebook in hand…I leave at 3 in the afternoon.

To be continued….

Alpenglow on the Rockies

Alpenglow on the Rockies