Boarding school in First Nations community in southeast B.C. welcomes first cohort of international students

Classes start this week at Purcell Collegiate School (PCS), an international boarding school in B.C.’s southeast. 

The first cohort of 12 students from across Canada, and countries like Japan and China, are living in a former residential school in the Aq’am community, within the Ktunaxa Nation. 

The building, St. Eugene Mission, was a residential school from 1912 until 1970.

In 1992, the community began the process of turning the building into a resort, and today it’s an award-winning hotel, golf course and casino that is owned by the Ktunaxa Nation and Shuswap Indian Band. 

Now, a portion of it is also home to international students while they live and learn in the community. 

Purcell Collegiate is a private boarding school that offers students in Grades 7 to 12 a B.C. curriculum in partnership with the Aq’am community. The school can take up to 20 international students. 

Aq’am owns shares in the school, while Aq’am Chief Joe Pierre is also a member on the school’s corporate board. 

“An institution that was once used in an attempted cultural genocide, is now a vehicle for students from around the world to learn Ktunaxa history, Ktunaxa language, Ktunaxa culture,” said Duncan MacLeod, head of school for PCS.  

“As inspiring as the international education opportunity is in Canada, the manner in which it was engaged was missing an important and foundational layer, and that layer is Canada’s Indigenous history and culture.”

Aq’am Chief Joe Pierre said teaching students about the residential school system and the Ktunaxa culture is a step toward reconciliation. (Corey Bullock/CBC News)

Pierre says the opportunity to tell students from across the world about the residential school system, and Ktunaxa culture, is a step toward reconciliation. 

“I think we all know, across Canada, the stories of residential schools and I think most people are very familiar with that No. 1 rule — you do not speak your own language. That was the No. 1 rule in all of these schools,” said Pierre. 

“Every time I get an opportunity to tell one of our stories, in this building, it’s a victory.”

International school plans to ‘grow organically’

Aq’am is a First Nations community, located about 850 kilometres east of Vancouver, situated within the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa Nation. The Nation’s territory spans more than seven million hectares, crossing provincial and national borders.  

Pierre says the partnership is unique, being one of the only on-reserve international schools in Canada. 

Eventually, PCS plans to have a brand new campus in the nearby community of Kimberley, infused with inputs and contributions from the Aq’am community, says MacLeod. 

“That [new] building is an extension of the MOU we have with the Aq’am community and the educational ethos we have … It’s a result of a collaborative process that is echoing with truth and reconciliation and channeling numerous calls to action.”

He says the school works in support of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 calls to action and in recognition of the United Nations Declaration of Rights to Indigenous Peoples

That includes hiring an Indigenous teacher-librarian that will help to decolonize the school’s curriculum. 

Hundreds of people attended a walk for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in the First Nations community of Aq'am on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, including a cohort of international students that are living and learning in Aq'am.
Hundreds of people attended a walk for the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in the First Nations community of Aq’am on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, including a cohort of international students that are living and learning in Aq’am. (Corey Bullock/CBC)

It may be years before the new campus is built, but MacLeod says the school has been embraced and welcomed by the community of Aq’am in the meantime.

“Our goal is to grow organically here, in partnership with the Aq’am community, and with the resort itself,” he said. 

Until the full-time campus is built, students are taking some classes at their boarding campus, which is located at St. Eugene.

They will learn Indigenous ways of knowing and first peoples principals of learning, which are aspects of the B.C. curriculum, directly within the Aq’am community. 

That means participating in powwows, making traditional food, and learning about the land, Pierre says. 

“It’s a philosophy in Ktunaxa we talk about all the time – ?a-kxam̓is q̓api qapsin, [meaning] all living things,” said Pierre. 

“I want to make sure that the students, when they come here, get an opportunity to be in relationship with ?a-kxam̓is q̓api qapsin, all living things, not just the human beings that are here, but all living things that are here.”

Students also take outdoor classes at Kimberley Alpine Resort and academic courses at College of the Rockies in Cranbrook. 

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