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Defying history

Aboriginal kids? Taught by whites? At a church school?

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HODGSON -- Some male students are showing off, shouting out the lyrics instead of singing them.

One boy tries to punch another boy across a third boy caught in between.

But as they sing the hymns, including Go Tell It On the Mountain and Blessed Be Thy Name, something starts to happen. Teaching assistant Andrea Reimer's voice is so rare and sweet and soothing. The kids calm down. By the end, all are singing along softly.

This story is about more than singing, of course. The children are all aboriginal. Reimer is white. It's a Christian school for aboriginal children. The Hodgson Christian Academy may be the first school to dare revisit ground once occupied by residential schools.

But unlike residential schools, which uprooted aboriginal children from their homes and too frequently inflicted physical or sexual abuse, this school is voluntary. It's a private school. Aboriginal parents pay to send their children here.

They don't just pay money -- $50 per child per month. Parents drive their kids an average 20 to 30 minutes each way to the off-reserve school started by local Mennonites. If parents on Peguis First Nation and Fisher River Cree Nation didn't believe so strongly in Hodgson Christian Academy, they could just have their children bused from the end of their driveways to a public school.

They also clean the school. It's small, just two classrooms and a general assembly room, so there is no custodian. Kids tidy up the school before leaving each day, including taking turns cleaning the bathrooms. On weekends, families take turns giving the school a proper cleaning, including washing the floors.

Then there's fundraising. The school is struggling, especially since Peguis First Nation pulled its $58,000 per year grant. There are bake sales, raffles, charity dinners, Christmas baskets, and walkathons. Parents are constantly on the look-out for resources like books and computers and sports equipment. They also fundraise for extra curricular activities, like a coming trip to the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg 160 kilometres away.

"The commitment of parents to this school just blows me away," said Clementine Spence, a teacher for over three decades in the public school system before returning home to Peguis and teaching at Hodgson Christian Academy.

How could such a school exist in the 21st Century while a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tours the country to hear the misdeeds of church leaders at residential schools? And with the school that operated for nine years now on the brink of financial collapse, how can it be saved?

The Hodgson school is really a satellite school of another private Christian school, the Morweena Christian School, in the hamlet of Morweena, about a 45-minute drive south of Peguis.

The Morweena school was started by a group of evangelical Mennonites from Steinbach who moved into this part of the Interlake area in 1960. A second migration of Mennonites, this time from Mexico, started arriving in 1965.

Some aboriginal families who could afford it started sending their children to Morweena Christian School. The cost is in the range of $2,500 per student although there's some wiggle room for families who don't have the means. The aboriginal parents liked the difference they saw in their kids. Soon other aboriginal parents joined them in asking the Morweena Mennonite Evangelical Church to start a satellite school for aboriginal kids near Peguis.

The Morweena church is evangelical and therefore dedicated to spreading Christianity and helping others. But starting a Christian school for aboriginal kids was the last thing on the congregation's mind. "The aboriginal community asked us white Mennonites to start a school for them, and every bone in my body said we can't do this," recalled Tim Reimer, principal of Morweena Christian School. "It was like, 'You want us, after what happened in residential schools, to help you start a Christian school?'"

That's exactly what they wanted and when the parents persisted, the Morweena Mennonites couldn't say no. So everybody rolled up their sleeves. The Morweena church raised $75,000 to buy a parcel of land and materials to build a small school house. The school was built by all volunteer labour comprised of first nation people and Morweena Mennonites. Peguis tradesmen like a plumber and electrician donated their services.

"It was the way life is supposed to be," said Reimer. Pauline Sinclair, from Peguis and an early backer for the satellite school, said of the Morweena Mennonites: "They are very giving and loving and understanding people, and we love them so much."

The school opened to much local fanfare, with many chiefs and other aboriginal leaders attending.

It's a K-12 school but no one has ever stayed to the higher grades, as we'll see later. Its student enrollment has fluctuated from a high of 25, down to just 14 this month. There's a reason for that, too.

In two separate interviews, one with a parent with a child at Hodgson Christian Academy, and another with a parent with children who attended the school and who now has a grandchild attending, the women became teary-eyed out of the blue when asked about the school. There didn't seem a specific reason for their tears other than gratitude toward the school.

"It's beautiful," said Rhonda Traverse, who had three children in HCA until recently, and now has one. "It's a delight to be in that school. You walk in, the atmosphere is different, the children are different."

Her oldest son in Grade 9 was doing poorly in public school and was skipping classes. Her daughter barely scraped through Grade 6. "She said to me, 'Mom, I'm not smart.'" A younger son was doing very well academically in public school but hated attending.

The results at HCA were dramatic. "They loved going to school," said Traverse, to the point where instead of her having to "badger them" to get ready for school, they were now ready before she was. "They learned the responsibility of knowing what was expected of them, and they excelled."

She is not ambivalent in the least about sending her children to a Christian school after what happened in residential schools. "God didn't do that to those children. People did," she said curtly.

Pauline Sinclair's daughter and son attended HCA, and a grandchild attends now. "There's accountability (at HCA). You can't get away with not doing your homework," said Sinclair, who runs the Mi-Ki-Nak gas station, convenience store and restaurant in Peguis with husband Clarence.

Mornings at HCA begin with a scripture reading, and the teachings are often applied to current events. That morning, said HCA teacher Clementine Spence, two students were troubled by the killing of a Toronto police officer by a crook driving a snowplow. She told students the policeman was trying to protect them and this time that carried the supreme sacrifice.

Religion, she said, "gives (people) a tool to use when confronted with issues: fear, death, being confronted with doing the right thing, if they can see in the world what they can do to make a difference. I ask the students all the time: 'What can you do to make a difference?'"

Students follow what's called ACE: Accelerated Christian Education. The provincially-approved program is a series of illustrated, grade equivalent workbooks. Students work largely independently, almost like a correspondence course, completing an average of four pages per day in six subjects, for a total of 24 pages. It's easy for parents to see whether the homework is being completed.

The school has three computers. It doesn't have a gym but there is Crown land beside them. They frequently walk along the edge of the forest together. "We walk and we talk and we observe," said Spence.

Is it succeeding? Reimer said it may take another five to 10 years to see if the school is making a difference. Parents see it as an important alternative to the public school system.

However, one concern with HCA is it's not accredited and parents worry secondary schools won't recognize their children's education. Accredited means teachers are certified with a university degree in education.

So most parents send their kids to HCA for just a year or two. Only two students have been in Hodgson Christian Academy for a length of six years. Some parents transfer their children to public school as they near high school graduation. That's why Ronda Traverse returned two of her children to public school just before Christmas.

Reimer is frustrated by that. He maintains accreditation is a non-issue. The Morweena school wasn't accredited for 40 years, until five years ago, yet it has had students go on to secondary school and excel at every level. Among its graduates, Dr. Stan Plett is a plant scientist in the United States, and Dr. Calvin Plett is a professor of electronics engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Reimer said the response over the years by aboriginal parents has been very gratifying. "They have come into our church many times and thanked us profusely," he said. Morweena Christian School handles HCA's business and administration but the long-term plan is to eventually hand that over to the aboriginal community.

But will the Hodgson school survive its recent funding cutbacks? The Peguis band has stopped contributing financially since the federal government moved in and took control of its finances. Previous band councils racked up enormous debts. However, the band did recently forward $5,000 to keep the school operating.

Obviously, the $50 per month tuition doesn't come close to running the school. The operating budget is about $70,000 per year. School officials are seeking donations from individuals and individual churches, and possibly corporate sponsorships.

"We're in trouble," said Reimer. "As recently as before Christmas, we were literally out of money."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2011 J1

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