When Benjamin Thompson and his wife Theresa bought a house in the RM of Morris, the aboriginal man who grew up in Winnipeg’s inner city thought it would be a safer, more peaceful place to raise a family. Five years later and with two children in elementary school, he’s changed his mind.
"What I want to do is put them in a school downtown," said Thompson, 35. "They’d fit in."
He’s worried Benjamin, 9, and Bailey, 5, are bullied and alienated at Rosenort School — and on the bus to and from — because of their background and their parents, who don’t attend church or look anything like the predominantly conservative Mennonite majority.
"Where they are now, it’s ruining their self-esteem," said Thompson, a hip-hop concert promoter who, with wife Theresa, runs BMS Entertainment.
"My kid was talking about suicide in kindergarten," he said, referring to his son Benjamin. When his five-year-old daughter Bailey’s hands were caught in the school bus doors on Tuesday and the driver just took off, that was the last straw, said the frustrated father.
"I’m at the point where I just want to leave here," he said. "(Theresa) wants to stay and fight and make them change."
'No one wants to play with them'
Theresa Thompson said she hates "drama" and fighting and isn’t "the kind of mom calling the school 100 times a day," but said whenever she’s raised concerns at school about her kids being bullied, they’ve been dismissed. Seeing her five-year-old daughter’s hands bruised and feelings hurt when she got off the bus Tuesday prompted her to speak out publicly.
"She stopped to say goodbye and thank the driver and he slammed the door on her hands. My daughter came running into the house screaming," she said. "He just drove off."
The driver didn’t stop to see if Bailey was OK and only called to apologize the next day, Theresa said — after she contacted the school and spoke to the principal about it.
It’s the compounding emotional wounds Benjamin Sr. is most worried about. "They go to school and no one wants to play with them and they get looked down on," he said.
There is the "run away from Ben game" that kids play at school, taunts of "what are you?" and "what’s wrong with you?" Theresa said.
She said Ben Jr. is also told his parents are going to hell because they don’t go to church, that they’re going to jail, that they get their house for free because "the government gives free houses to native people."
The school guidance counsellor took the kids aside on the first day of school to ask how things were going at home, she said. When Theresa called to inquire, she was told it was routine.
"They felt like they were singled out," she said. Her son has been called offensive names by chanting children on the school bus and, over time, the insults and slights are taking a toll, said the 32-year-old mom who is Caucasian and grew up in Calgary.
Theresa has complained to the school about the situation and the bullying and was told they’re too sensitive and that other parents are upset "because their kids feel like have to walk on eggshells" around the Thompson kids, she said.
When asked to respond, Rosenort School principal Jerry Waldner referred media inquiries to the school division.
Red River Valley School Division superintendent and CEO Pauline Lafond-Bouchard said she was investigating the matter and couldn’t comment.
Benjamin Sr. said he feels his aboriginal appearance and tattoos may have turned the school community against his kids. "It’s horrible going into stores and them looking at you in disgust. I thought I left the city for a better life. I worked hard and said, ‘I will give my kids a better life than growing up downtown’," he said.
Where they are now, 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg and northwest of Morris, seems like a less nurturing environment than the rough neighbourhood he left behind, he said.
In the Rosenort area, some neighbours have been kind, some have tried to convert them and others have been less than kind, the couple said.
They’ve had the police called on them "literally a hundred times" by people complaining their dog was barking — even after their dog died last year, Theresa said.
'A very understanding community': reeve
"We have a safe community," said RM of Morris Reeve Ralph Groening. He said he’s never met the Thompsons but bristled at any insinuation of racial or religious intolerance in Rosenort.
"It’s a community with strong standards and strong religious views," Groening said. "There are four different church denominations, so it’s not as though there isn’t any diversity. There’s folks who don’t go to church.
"It’s not a homogeneous community by any means. I think it’s unreasonable to present them as holy rollers. They’re a very understanding community."
If the family has specific, substantiated complaints they should present them to the appropriate authority and the authority should respond, Groening said. "We fix the roads and do drainage and the zoning bylaws.
"What can we do?... If there’s something specific that falls under our mandate, I’m happy to talk."
The parents say they just want to make sure their kids are OK at school.
"They need to accept diversity," said Theresa. "We’re all people. I’m not asking them to be my friends but they have to treat my kids with dignity and respect when they’re at school.
"I feel really stuck and I don’t know what to do. I would do home-schooling but my nine-year-old son is better at math than I am," she said, half-jokingly.
"I want to stand our ground... I don’t think running away is going to help. We need to be strong and not run away."