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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
“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.
“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.
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?”
“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.”
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….