Indigenous Success Stories

Urban Commitments to Reconciliation

‘This is Ktunaxa’. Indigenous elder and Order of Canada recipient Sophie Pierre on a lifetime of leadership and change in B.C.‘s Kootenays.

December 31, 2022
Sophie Pierre served as the elected chief of ʔAq̓ am and the Ktunaxa National Council’s tribal chair for 25 years.Corey Bullock/CBC

As told to Corey Bullock. Written by Courtney Dickson

CBC News: When Sophie Pierre was growing up, she says Indigenous people were referred to in the past tense.

Today, the Ktunaxa flag flies proudly over her community.

Pierre herself is, first and foremost, Ktunaxa. She was born and raised in Ktunaxa near Cranbrook, B.C., and has lived there all her life. She’s a mother and grandmother, a daughter and an elder. Pierre also served as the elected chief of ʔAq̓ am, formerly known as the St. Mary’s Indian Band, a member of the Ktunaxa Nation for 26 years, and Ktunaxa National Council’s tribal chair for 25.

She was appointed chief commissioner of the B.C. Treaty Commission in 2009 and received the Order of B.C. in 2002 and the Order of Canada in 2016. Pierre is a residential school survivor. She’s seen a lot in her 71 years of life.

This is her story, in her own words.

Sophie Pierre stands outside the former St. Eugene Mission, now a hotel, casino and golf resort.
Led in part by Sophie Pierre, the former St. Eugene Mission was converted into a hotel and resort by the Ktunaxa Nation and the Shuswap Indian Band, (Corey Bullock/CBC)

I’m born and raised here [Cranbook, B.C. area]. I am Ktunaxa. After a lifetime in politics, I play the elder role now.

I was first elected in 1976, and I served my community as their elected chief for 26 years. I served the nation in the role of first administrator and then chair of the Ktunaxa Nation for 30 years. I witnessed all the incredible growth the Ktunaxa Nation has seen.

There’s been so much change for the better, so much growth, so many good things that have happened within the Ktunaxa Nation for all of our communities in that time.

St. Eugene Residential School/Golf Resort & Casino

They started building it [St. Eugene Mission] in 1910. The federal government created this policy about schooling for Indigenous children and partnered with churches. In this particular case, it was with the Catholic Church. It opened in 1912. It closed in 1970. I spent nine years here. I came here as a six-year-old child, and I left at the age of 15.

Now, the site is a hotel, golf resort and casino.

The decision [to develop the land] was made by the Ktunaxa and the Shuswap Indian Band by our people. Because it’s Indian reserve lands, the Indian Act dictates that you must have referenda in the communities in order to do anything. So, in this case, we had to have five referenda. If even one of the five communities had decided we don’t really want to do anything with the building, we wouldn’t have been able to develop this at all.

A sign reading
The St. Eugene Mission, once a residential school, is now a hotel, golf resort and casino. (Tom Popyk/CBC)
A statue of two children stands outside the former mission.
The statue created by sculptor Cameron Douglas at the St. Eugene Golf Resort & Hotel, entitled The Children and installed in 2017, was designed to honour all the students who attended the St. Eugene Mission Residential School. (Tom Popyk/CBC)

We spent two years answering questions, having really, really difficult discussions because there were many, particularly the older generation, that felt that this place should just be knocked down. That’s what happened to a lot of Indian residential schools across the country.

It’s a pretty solid building. It’s a granite building, and it’s pretty massive. It would have taken a lot to knock it down. So the discussions that we had in meetings, at kitchen tables, just family gatherings, the discussion around doing something with the building started to take the lead. 

There were a couple of things we knew for sure we did not want to have, like a social service type initiative in here, because it would mean that it would need funding, and there’s nothing worse than having to just scratch for your existence all the time. We were wanting to develop something that was going to be more of a business, something that would be self-supporting, self-sustaining and someday actually deliver for our communities.

The decision was made to go with the hotel. The province, in the meantime, made a decision to change its gaming regulations. We were able to apply for a gaming licence, so we added the casino. The golf course was always part of it. We opened the golf course first in the year 2000, and then we opened the casino in 2001 and then we opened the hotel in 2003. We’ve been a going concern since.

The last couple of years have been really, really difficult. We’ve had to close through the winter because nobody was going anywhere. Nobody was travelling. I mean, any of the tourism operators anywhere in the country, worldwide, it was just a really difficult time. But we have been able to recover, and we had a really, really good summer, lots of traffic, lots of interest, people wanting to come back, and it gives us an opportunity now to start rebuilding that business base that we had.

Relationship between settlers and Ktunaxa

We spent a lot of time and effort. We, being the nation, spent an incredible amount of time and effort in building a good solid relationship with our neighbours and really in re-establishing our presence here in our own homelands.

When I started back in the 70s, it was not a good relationship. In fact, Indigenous people were talked about in the past tense. They used to live here. They used to hunt here. They used to do this and that. Nowadays, people acknowledge this is Ktunaxa.

A map showing the territory of the Ktunaxa Nation, in B.C.'s eastern interior.
The Ktunaxa Nation’s territory is far-reaching, covering approximately 70,000 square kilometres. (CBC)

All of our communities have good working relationships with the local municipalities that they’re next to. We fly the Ktunaxa Nation flag, and our headquarters are in Cranbrook. It’s a vast difference compared to when I was growing up when there were still stores where they did not welcome Indigenous people. Cranbrook residents today would be appalled to hear that and not want to believe it. But it’s true. I lived it. 

Today it’s incredibly different.

My granddaughter and I are welcomed everywhere, much different than when it was for my grandmother and me.

A black and white photo of a young girl and her grandmother on a city street.
An archival photo of Sophie Pierre and her grandmother. (Submitted by Sophie Pierre)

I think that there’s a growing awareness among the Canadian population in general.

The relationships that go on here, I know that it’s vastly different from many other areas. Some areas … there’s still a lot of controversy, and there’s still a fair amount of prejudice.

It’s not saying that everything is great here. Our kids still run into situations in the high school. That’s just the way human nature is. We always have to find somebody to bother, somebody to put down. But I think that the overall working relationship between the Ktunaxa communities and all of the communities within our homelands, I describe as being a very positive relationship.

Language preservation

We have a unique language. Our language is not similar to any other Indigenous language anywhere in the world, much less in Canada. We’ve had linguists study the language. It is a very unique language, but it also creates a real challenge for us because if we do not work at maintaining our language when it dies, it dies. There is nowhere else in the world that you can go and pick it up again. 

We’ve got a society that we have put together that we’ve formed of former residential school students, those of us that are still around. We know that there’s a lot of work that we need to do just in terms of preserving our stories. 

The sad history is that it was a residential school, but it also has an incredible future, and it has an incredible present because right now, we have chosen to take what was so negative in the past and turn it into something positive today for future generations. It’s really important that that message is offered to all of our guests when they come here.

Sophie Pierre stands outside the former St. Eugene Mission, now a hotel, casino and golf resort.
Sophie Pierre stands outside the former St. Eugene Mission, now a hotel, casino and golf resort. (Corey Bullock/CBC)