St. Eugene's Mission

The winding road to St. Eugene Mission

The last corner of the winding road that led to the brick building many First Nation children recognized as the St. Eugene Mission residential school near Cranbrook was known to roughly 5,000 students total as Crying Corner.

Beatrice Stevens was one of those students who was forced into an aggressive assimilation approach to diminish First Nation traditions in Canada for a total of nine years except for one year when Ms. Stevens temporarily attended David Thompson Secondary School while her father was temporarily missing.

The 69-year-old Akisqnuk First Nation woman was traumatized by the experience, which divided her family as well as forced her to focus on a personal healing experience to cope with physical and sexual abuse that occurred at the St. Eugene Mission (also known as Kootenay Indian Residential School) during the 20th century.

I was eight years old when I went there, she said, noting her sister, Julie, was sent to the St. Eugene Mission at the mere age of five.

She remembered watching her peers being abused for illiteracy and later faced her own devastation at the hands of a nun.

I got sexually abused by a nun so therefore every Christmas, I got a doll (from her) and later on in life, I hated dolls. I hated dolls, she repeated for a second time with a look of disbelief. Shed give me a doll and the other nuns wouldnt strap me or anything. I got away with a lot of things because I was keeping a secret, so that went on until she eventually left.

Ms. Stevens remembers lying awake at night and questioning why her family would allow the Canadian government to take control of her life.

When I was going to bed, I would say, Why is my Mom and Dad doing this to me, they must hate me and why are they sending me here? I hate it, said Ms. Stevens. In my head, I always thought that I hated them.

She remained in school 10 months of the year, and would return home for the summer to visit family.

According to a recent CBC report, there were roughly 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Metis children removed from communities across Canada and forced to attend residential schools from 1931 until the last school was closed in 1996.

Summer time was always really good, but going back, as soon as you reached that hill, you could hear the kids crying, she said, noting Crying Corner became a landmark that many students feared and hated. When I reached Grade 6, there was one nun who explained what was going on and that she didnt like what she had to do, but that she had to do it. I really liked her. She was small. And she told us, Dont hate your parents.

They have no choice. If they dont send you, theyll end up going to jail. Dont hate them for sending you here, and thats the best thing that I ever heard from that school.

Learning About a Lost Heritage

Alfred Joseph has a vivid memory of his two cousins walking away and refusing to talk to him at St. Eugene Mission at the mere age of six.

He couldnt speak any English or French, but quickly learned that students at residential schools were forbidden to practise their first language or First Nations traditions.

The risk of being caught often meant severe punishment, as well as being forced to learn the English language and assimilate.

I didnt know anybody else so I guess I cracked at whatever I was doing, said Mr. Joseph.

Mr. Joseph went on to learn the English alphabet from his brother and gradually began speaking English.

During his mid-20s, he had to re-learn how to speak his Ktunaxa language from scratch even though he could understand some of the dialect by ear.

That whole mission school experience created how I am today, he said. When I came out, I was a very subdued person.

Now, at 63, he volunteers to teach Ktunaxa to the Akisqnuk community.

I remember crying to myself constantly during my junior year, said Mr. Joseph. I was so scared. I grew up there with the thinking that because it was so religiously angled, when we would go to classes I really believed that God would talk to them every night and give them instruction (about) what they were supposed to do the next day and that was one of the biggest things that I believed for quite a few years.

He said he believed their superior behaviour was a direct connection to divinity. Mr. Joseph ultimately attended the St. Eugene Mission for 12 years in total. The Catholic-run school remained open until 1970.

It gave me a feeling of helplessness, he said, talking about the strict religious teachings at the mission. And God didnt help me at all because I wanted it all to stop and it didnt.

Focusing on the Future

Patsy Nicholas might not remember the bus ride to St. Eugene Mission, but her introduction to the care system left a distinct impression behind.

I dont remember who took me or if I cried. I think its because my brother was with me and thats all that mattered until we got there and we were separated, explained Ms. Nicholas, who is now 60 years old. He went one way and I went the other way.

The stark realization of being taken from home felt small when faced with the daunting realities of life at St. Eugene Mission.

All I remember was standing in a great big hallway with my little bag, looking behind and seeing my brother going the other way so I turned around to follow him and I got yanked back and dragged down the hallway, she said. That was my introduction to residential school.

Ms. Nicholas, who now lives on Akisqnuk First Nation, teared up as she talked about the process of going through the paperwork for the Common Experience Payment that was made available to residential school students who were alive as of May 30th, 2005. Former residential school survivors became eligible to receive $10,000 for the first year or part of a year they attended school, plus $3,000 for each subsequent year.

In addition, former students can also pursue a further claim for sexual abuse and serious physical abuse under the Independent Assessment Process (IAP).

Under the federal compensation package, according to a recent CBC report, $1.6 billion has been paid as of September 30th, 2013 which represents 105,548 students.

Ms. Nicholas is still going through the process and hopes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions final report about residential schools is the first step toward publicly addressing her own nations experience. She remains optimistic about continuing the healing process for families who are still living in fear of their pasts.

I was there for nine years because I failed a grade, she said. When I left, its because they closed the school.

She got to stay at home with her parents in 1968, but when her mother died, Ms. Nicholas was temporarily sent back to the mission for care.

The scope of damage seen by many First Nation families had not diminished as time went on.

They didnt have the strap anymore. They had a plastic badminton racket and they would hit you at the end of the fingers, said Ms. Nicholas.

Now she is focused on staying positive and learning about the cultural traditions that were lost.

Its just paper, she said. Were not getting over it. Were still battling it. Some of us want to move forward, but others dont want us to. It gets frustrating.

In my mind, as a worker (at the Akisqnuk Health Care) here and trying to follow the paperwork, the community people are not ready so how do we move forward? she asked, noting the damage would likely not be repaired before the end of her life. Its sure not going to be in my time. We can start now though.

Historical photos courtesy of St. Eugene Mission Archives