Tony Burge was one the few non-Indigenous employees hired at the school. He was instrumental in helping to build the athletics program. He spent almost two decades of his life at the school and considers it the highlight of his career because it was fun. He stayed and managed the Lebret Eagles hockey team after the school closed
Reason for going
In 1983, 21-year-old Tony was wrapping up his college program in Lethbridge, Alta. when he applied for the program manager job at Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School. He was interviewed and was selected. He was told the school wanted to put more emphasis on athletics as a way to keep kids in school.
Tony said he had plenty of experience running teams and coaching, so it was something he knew he could do. He signed the contract but admitted he didn’t know what he was getting himself into, because not only was it his first adult job, but he was doing it in an environment he had never been.
Impact of the school
Tony said the first year was the toughest, but his dad convinced him to give it two years. He said it was a real culture shock for him plus there were some staff members who treated him badly. Tony came close to leaving a couple times because he couldn’t handle the hostility, but that was until a few staff members reached out to him and encouraged him to stay.
As Tony developed a collegiate-level training program for the students, he received more support by not only the staff but by the students. Not long after he arrived, the Star Blanket Cree Nation took control of the school and things changed drastically. He said the Chief and Council fully supported the athletics department because they wanted to create a school that rivaled Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a prestigious private boarding school in Wilcox, Sask. that was famous for its hockey team, the Notre Dame Hounds.
With the support of the Chief and Council and the childcare workers things fell into place, but as the athletics department grew, more of his time was required. Soon new teachers were hired and got involved. He said once that happened the athletics department was unstoppable.
The boys and girls teams became regulars at provincial playoffs and as the schools reputation for sports grew it attracted the best athletes from across Canada.
He said there was no greater feeling than to see the volleyball, basketball, track, baseball, and eventually the hockey team become not only contenders but leaders. Tony said the best part was to see students become successful. He said students were proud to represent the school and to see the whole thing start from the ground floor was amazing.
Tony said he still questions the federal government’s decision to close the school. He believes the school was on the cusp of greatness and none of that was considered in the decision-making. He believes it’s time to let Canadians know about the school he loved. Tony said he’s tired of the negativity and having to explain that it was a good school. He said it wasn’t just athletics it was academics as well and the school was producing great kids who left the school with the skills to be successful and to be leaders not only in their home communities but in Canadian society. Tony says if the school building was old, then why did they not build a new one because the school was nothing like the residential schools of the past.