A brief disclaimer:
This website is work of passion, and is squeezed in between a busy day job and life’s obligations. While I make every effort to be as thorough and accurate as possible, errors and omissions are inevitable. I therefore strongly recommend readers to visit my references, and read to follow your own journey.
Throughout British Columbia, and surely the rest of Canada and within the United States, there are many locations where the contemporary landscape shows strong evidence where Indigenous culture and colonist (chiefly European) culture have collided. Historic day schools located within an urban setting, or evidence of long-closed residential schools.
Kamloops Indian Residential School, as previously described is one such example where the architecture still exists to this day, and the place of former sorrow stares us in the face while Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc who own the land are taking society through a journey of truth. Conversely, St. Paul’s Indian Residential School in North Vancouver is one example where the land ownership ostensibly never changed, and the site has advanced its educational mission in modern society – alongside the memory of its disturbing past, but camouflaged within a residential neighbourhood that occupies the grounds where children once toiled to feed themselves.
But there are other sites that fall entirely into a category of their own, where the site of pain was transformed into something of a place of recreation, where families picnic within the literal foundations of structures that once housed children torn from their families; where a perspective of the past is celebrated and attempts made to preserve.
People of the River
For at least 4,000 to 10,000 years, dozens of cultural groups occupied the shores and waterways around the Fraser River. These Halkomelem-speaking Coast Salish peoples are today recognized as Stó:lō, a Nation Society (Tribal Council) who’s name means People of the River. Each with their own unique cultures and customs, these peoples included Chawathil, Cheam, Kwantlen, Kwaw-kwaw-Apilt, Scowlitz, Seabird Island, Shxw’ow’hamel and Soowahlie. These people lived a relatively unfettered existence until 1861.
St. Mary’s Residential School
One February day in 1861, an iron war canoe travelling upstream on the Fraser River changed the course of history in the Fraser Valley forever. The canoe carried twelve Stó:lō men, and Father Leon Fouquet, recently arrived from France on a mission for the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The Oblates were a new Catholic order, originally established to evangelize the poor, who believed that Satan was at work both in the lives of non-Christians, but also in the corrupt civilization of Christian secular society. Father Fouquet’s intent was to save the Indigenous populations from not only Satan, but from the violent and alcoholic excesses of the prospectors looking for gold in the nearby Caribou Gold Rush.
The site currently exists within the modern borders of the City of Mission – unimaginatively named after the St. Mary’s Mission. Father Leon Fouquet, a missionary belonging to the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, named his Mission after St. Mary: a reformed antient Egyptian prostitute, who symbolized the Oblate’s struggle against “immorality” in the Fraser Valley region. The history that follows below is a snapshot from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, but a 1993 Master’s thesis paper titled Saint Mary’s Mission (Mission City, British Columbia) 1861 to 1900 is an excellent resource that goes beyond other useful, but more abbreviated histories such as that from the Museum of Mission. The St. Mary’s (BC) catalogue within the Indian Residential School History & Dialogue Centre Collections was heavily resourced for photos.
In 1863, the St. Mary’s Mission School for Boys was opened, followed in 1868 with a School for Girls established by the Sisters of St. Ann. In 1882, construction of a new railway bordering the Fraser River required the relocation of the Mission further upslope; school buildings were completed in 1885 on the new site.
The National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation produced a chronology of the School worth reading. To call these schools appears to be a misnomer, as the institution was classified as an Industrial School (see First Nations Education Steering Committee for a worthwhile reference), likely with a religious focus. The facility only featured classrooms in the modern sense in 1946, when students were admitted in grades 1 through 6, followed by high school classes from 1948 onward, although students entering grades 11 and 12 were required to travel to North Vancouver to St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic High School. Eagle-eyed readers will recognize this facility as the successor to St. Paul’s Indian Residential School, mentioned above.
In 1960, the Federal Government through the Department of Indian Affairs began to employ the teaching staff, marking the era of government control, a period that became increasingly associated with corporal punishment. Although the school continued to be operated by the Oblate order, activities were increasingly transferred immediately east, across D’Herbomez Creek – named in honour of the Bishop who oversaw the purchase of the original St. Mary’s Mission.
Personal accounts reveal that life at the ‘school’ did not resemble a modern school day. Residential Schools are known to have harbored serial pedophiles who took advantage of a school system where children did not go home to parents at day’s end. In St. Mary’s Mission, a dormitory supervisor was found to have sexually assaulted numerous students. As part of an RCMP task force, Gordon Irvin Kinney was arrested in Thailand in 2006: one of many known and unknown predators that controlled the lives of children in their care. The National Centre for Truth & Reconciliation has honored the deceased students whom survivors have permitted to be published. In 2023, a researcher team highlighted that 158 children had died at or due to their attendance at St. Mary’s Residential School. The team notes, however, that many more were hidden through secretive burials and cremations.
In 1962 in response to concerns about safety of rapidly deteriorating structures, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate demolished the last remaining buildings on the site of the original St. Mary’s Mission, levelling the ground by 1965. In 1978, the Oblate order moved to develop the land to mirror the suburban neighborhoods that began to surrounded the site.
In 1979 in response to the Oblate order’s desire to develop, the local community mobilized. Norma Kenney was head of the Mission Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee and chaired a Special Steering Committee to initiate the creation of a ‘Heritage Park’ in the vicinity of the old St. Mary’s Mission. Nicknamed ‘the Velvet Steamroller’, Kenney oversaw the creation of the Mission Heritage Association, a group that raised funds, lobbied politicians, and gathered community support. The efforts eventually paid off, with 40 acres being deeded a park in 1986. The Mission Heritage Association was responsible for programming events in the park, with a mission to “develop, enhance and promote the facilities, history, culture and natural beauty of the park locality.”
Echoing the sentiment throughout the remainder of Mission Heritage Association’s archived website, a the park’s history begins with the establishment of St. Mary’s Mission. It is odd that an organization that spawned out of protest to the Oblate’s desire to develop the site also appears to admire the Oblate order’s history at the expense all others. In fact, interpretive signage that was installed throughout the years on the property was geared exclusively to the history of St. Mary’s as if it were a museum within a park. There appeared to be no mention of the thousands-years Indigenous presence or the full history of the ‘school’. Although the City of Mission has since acknowledged this oddity by embarking on a program to exchange the signage for a more fulsome history of the lands, since 2022, a few of the more significant interpretive signs could still be found – appearing to be carefully concealed from critical eye. The photos below were taken after foliage was moved from view.
In more prominently visible locations, the interpretive is dutifully stationed.
The establishment of the Fraser River Heritage Park led to the creation of a space for community gatherings. Families would picnic in the foundations of building that once stood on the grounds. The foundations were likely preserved out of cost-effectiveness until the site would be dug for installation of underground infrastructure and roadways that would have preceded the construction of single-family homes, if the Oblate order would have had their way. Families still do picnic in these foundations – enjoying each other’s company in places that once stood to eviscerate the culture of Indigenous children collected from settlements along the Fraser River. The site is also popular for graduation photos – proud parents standing alongside their children in amongst evidence of the ‘school’ that once attempted to rob Indigenous youth of their identities. And while a largely non-Indigenous society attempts to grapple with the changing identity of their Heritage Park, the world continues to move on.
The World Moving On
Today, to the east across D’Herbomez Creek from the old St. Mary’s Mission site now lies the Pekw’Xe:yles Indian reserve. Stó:lō own and operate what remains of the facilities that were once associated with St. Mary’s Mission. Although the architecture remains, it is a place of education and cultural renewal – a testament to the incredible resilience of these peoples.
As mentioned above, the City of Mission is attempting to bridge the gap in the understanding of ‘Heritage’ since the Park was dedicated. This is likely a process that will take some time while trust is built.
Another approach that the City of Mission, led by the Province of British Columbia has taken is to return traditional lands to First Nations to establish new public parklands, recreational areas, and places for living, economic and social opportunity.
Agreements such as this are a departure from an over hundred year story where lands were assumed to be available for the taking by foreign users with little to no payment to the peoples who lived in relative harmony. Land was taken, peoples were coaxed and forced into an alien cultural path, and when the institutions that facilitated this process disappeared, their memories were cherished and praised by the dominant culture.
Truth hurts. But once we understand it and come to a reconciliation and true understanding of others and each other, we might be able to collaborate together and build something better.