In BC, the first residential school ever constructed was the St. Euguene Mission school. This building was designed by Canadian architect Allan Keefer in 1911. The facility and it’s design were unusual for Canada’s Indian residential schools — that already had a regular design implemented across the country.
So why was this residential school in particular commissioned with a special design — and why was Keefer, a junior designer with little experience under his belt, commissioned to do the work?
To answer that, we have to look at the colonization of Upper Canada at it’s beginnings.
William Hamilton Merritt is notoriously remembered as the colonizer who bankrupted the Six Nations people through the Grand River Navigation Company — a venture looking to build a small East to West canal joining the Welland Canal to improve the transport of goods in Upper Canada.
Prior to his disastrous work with the Grand River Navigation Company, Merritt was one of the founders of the Welland Canal. The venture was part of a “canal fever” bandwagon that was sweeping Europe and North America — something that first generation land development colonizers in Ontario were trying jump in on.
Another colonizer of Ontario, George Keefer, was part of the Welland Canal development in Upper Canada and founded a very profitable legacy off of Indigenous lands.
Keefer was a United Empire Loyalist who came to Upper Canada from New Jersey. He is remembered for flooding Six Nations territory along the Grand River during the construction of the Welland Canal. When construction began, the Welland Canal Company guaranteed landholders, including Six Nations, compensation for any lands, homes or structures that were destroyed due to flooding during construction of the Canal. Historical records suggest that white landowners were compensated as agreed but that the Six Nations were not.
In 1836, Keefer, his sons and Merritt would all be subject to an inquiry for unjust enrichment, nepotism, fraud, neglect and carelessness while they served in leadership as Directors for the Welland Canal.
In 1832, Merritt sought investors for the Grand River Navigation Company, but could not raise the capital to launch.
His project was opposed by John Brant, a Mohawk man and son of Captain Joseph Brant, who was concerned that Haudenosaunee lands and fisheries along the Grand River would be ruined in the construction of the canal. John Brant ran for an elected seat in the Upper Canadian legislative assembly and won. Something that drew the ire of Merritt — who had learned that Indigenous voices in politics standing up for land rights were preventing the work of colonizing Upper Canada. So Merritt took legal action against Brant, to nullify the Indigenous votes that got Brant fairly voted into office under the argument that impoverished Indigenous voters, by law, didn’t own enough assets to count as a voter. Merritt’s lawsuit was successful, Brant was removed from office and a by-election was called to fill the vacancy.
Brant sought to run again in the by-election but in the meantime, he contracted cholera and died — leaving no strong voice for Six Nations to the government. Merritt ran in the by-election for Haldimand and won, claiming Brant’s former seat.
Merritt became a majority shareholder in the Grand River Navigation Company, along with colonizer David Thompson — who was a co-investor with Merritt in the Welland Canal. Merritt convinced the Indian Department to invest Six Nations trust funds into the company. Six Nations historical reports in the Global Solutions accounting of the breech of trust claim against the federal government show that “Between 1834 and 1847, recorded transfers show more than £44,292 ($177,168) was taken from Six Nations Trust Funds by Crown Agents and invested into the Grand River Navigation Company through stock purchases. This was completed contrary to the repeated protests of Six Nations.”
At that time, from 1837-1845, colonizer Samuel Jarvis was operating as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Upper Canada. Jarvis was a part of the “Family Compact”, a group of elite Canadian families that collectively contributed to help one another politically and financially in colonizing Canada.
Political leaders like Merritt and Jarvis took action to politically maneuver to prohibit Indigenous votes, restrict land rights of Indigenous people, and commission reports to develop the Indian Residential School system. While families like the Thompsons and Keefers used their positioning to quietly advance colonization and the oppression of Indigenous people through their specific areas of influence.
In 1844, the Merritt’s, the Keefer’s and other influential families benefited from the passing of the Free Banking Act — legislation spearheaded by Merritt to allow investors to open community banks locally. The Merritts and Keefer’s launched the Niagara District Bank in St. Catherines, despite the accusations of unjust enrichment from the Welland Canal. The bank was sold to the Imperial Bank of Canada in the 1870’s — something that was later recorded as a big financial victory for shareholders.
Simultaneously, the Indian Residential School system was being formalized in a report from the Bagot Commission in 1845. The report proposed that separating Indigenous children from their parents was the best way to assimilate them into white culture. The report, and other initiatives propelled forward by Jarvis, rejected the instruction of Indigenous students in their own language and rejected day schools teaching the same subjects as white schools in favour of live-in residential schools restricting teaching to agricultural and industrial activities. The Commission recommended the Mohawk Institute in Brantford would be the model for all other industrial schools in Canada.
The stage was set for white, elite colonizer families to quietly succeed and pass down intergenerational wealth while Indigenous families were being politically silenced, prosecuted, and legislated into family separation and religious persecution by those elites.
The Keefer legacy is a case-in-point for how colonizers financially benefitted and passed a legacy of wealth trickling down to their descendants by overtly supporting and enabling the marginalization of Indigenous people in Ontario.
George Keefer successfully colonized what is now Southern Ontario and left a legacy behind for his ten sons and five daughters. His financial success at the Welland Canal gave him the affluence to build mills that were fuelled by the power from the canal. He died in 1858 a very rich man, the founder of the town of Thorold where he built the Keefer family mansion, which today is known as the Keefer Mansion Inn.
His descendants — Thomas Coltrin Keefer and Samuel Keefer — became noted civil engineers in Canada during the 1800s, securing the legacy of colonizing developments in Upper Canada in various other projects such as the building of Upper Canada College, the Cayuga Bridge Company, the Erie and Ontario Railroad Company and the Montreal Turnpike Trust and McGill College construction along with other members of the Family Compact group. Interesting to note is those same projects acquired investment by the Crown from Indian Agents from Six Nations trust with no repayment.
According to the Global Solutions land rights accounting, Six Nations claims that $9000 was invested in the Welland Canal project without being repaid — with compounded interest that is listed as a current day value of $107,743,646,916.
McGill College received an investment translating to $95,772,130,592 and the Erie & Ontario Railroad Company investment now sits at $105,349,343,651.
A shocking $113,600 was invested in the Montreal Turnpike with no return to Six Nations, a system designed by Thomas Coltrin Keefer. That translates into $697,876,697,563 today.
Samuel Keefer would go on to be one of Canada’s engineers in the department tasked to do consultations for the Hamilton to Port Dover Plank Road project.
George Alexander Keefer, grandson of the first George, was another engineer who worked on the railways. He would take the family wealth and travel to British Columbia to colonize the west and build portions of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. He is noted as the founder of Keefers, BC and Keefer Lake, BC which occupies the territory of the Secwepemc, Stl’atl’imx, Okanagan and Nlaka’pamux territories.
This leads us to where we started. Allan Keefer, a grandson of Thomas Coltrin Keefer, was the architect of the first residential school in BC. The Department of Indian Affairs commissioned Keefer to design the St. Eugene Mission Residential School in 1911.
Hiring Keefer was seen as an unnecessary move for the department, who had regular designs used for all residential schools across Canada — but seems in line with the kind of colonial opportunities that male descendants of white elites were finding within their reach. Keefer’s designs of the St. Euguene Mission Indian Residential School advanced his career. He was later hired as an in-house architect with the Department of Public Works — where he worked for the next 35 years. While there, he further developed on unceded indigenous lands in Ottawa that the Keefer family owned, founding the Rockcliffe Park subdivision.