Feelings mixed at loss of former residential school.
"Everything just went up in smoke," said Mary Weasel Fat, head librarian of the Red Crow Community College on Kainai First Nation.
"Everything. The whole building. We had 15,000 plus books in there. We had some rare books ... I had a prayer book in Blackfoot from 1898 that went up in flames," she said.
A fire deliberately set in the early morning hours of Aug. 14 destroyed the college, consuming everything inside the building, causing $11 million damage. Among the losses were more of Weasel Fat's rare books, including an original copy of "Our Betrayed Wards"--a book from the early 1900s about the poor treatment of the Blood people by the Canadian government--as well as original Kainai and Blood newspapers from the 1960s and '70s, and office equipment, including computers.
"It's really depressing ... but some people that went to residential school there were glad it burned down. Some people didn't even want to go back there because of the bad memories they had," she said.
Blood Tribe Police Service is saying, based on a report received from the fire commissioner's office, the fire is arson. BTPS will not say how the fire was started.
The fire may be more sweet than bitter for some.
Prior to being the reputable college it is now, the building was the site for St. Mary's Indian residential school. Erected in 1911 under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the school was used in the IRS system until 1975, then given to the Blood tribe shortly after.
"I started working there in 1993, as a student counsellor," said Henry Big Throat, now vice president of student's services. "In 1984, the residential school closed. We (the Blood tribe) took it over in 1986, and we took over postsecondary education from Indian Affairs in 1990."
Under Blood administration, the school was first used for adult upgrading then became the Red Crow College in 1995. It was the first tribal college in Canada.
Big Throat takes pride in the work they are doing there now, but remembers Red Crow's residential school days vividly. He was a student there for five years during the 1960s.
"I know that part too. the negative part. But I acknowledged it, I embraced it, and I let it go. And we turned it from a negative to a positive," he said.
Since going from a school in the IRS system--often associated with tales of atrocious abuse, cruelty, and mistreatment of children--Red Crow College has seen 100150 students go on to obtain master's degrees, and 90 per cent of their undergraduate students finish their studies, said Big Throat.
They would see twice as many graduates if it weren't for funding restrictions.
"We have to reject half of our applicants. We get up to 800, and can only accept 350. And we had to operate in an old residential school because the federal government doesn't see post-secondary education as a treaty right," he said.
So while the school's needs are now amplified, and they are currently accepting donations of office furniture and equipment, and money, it didn't start with the recent fire.
"It's been so unfortunate with the fire, but we wanted out of that building. We knew it was a hazard, and it happened," said Ruth Provost, coordinator for Mi'kai'sto, a charitable organization set up to help Red Crow. "Discussion started as far back as 2002, when the first fire burned through the library ... The building was old then."
The building was even assessed at one point for repairs, but staff were told it would be too expensive, so a new building was recommended. However, their pleas were dwarfed by other social needs on the reserve, and surrounding communities have not been willing to step in, says Provost.
"Even right now, 17 days after the fire, we've only gotten $1,315 on our Go Fund Me page. We are the biggest reserve in Canada, and our post-secondary service is extremely important," she said.
Approximately 300 students will be moved to the Saipoyi school in nearby Stand Off at the start of September.
By Andrea D. Smith