School backers convince critics project worthy

Vow to protect indigenous culture


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It was the very definition of an inauspicious beginning.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/06/2016 (2429 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was the very definition of an inauspicious beginning.

Last November, a group of prominent businessmen led by Mark and Steve Chipman announced plans to open an independent Jesuit school in the inner city. The plan would see as many as 60 children from surrounding neighbourhoods attend Grades 6 to 8 at the new school, with agreements to move those students to St. Paul’s High School and St. Mary’s Academy to attend secondary school. No tuition would be charged to the families of the students.

It appeared for all intents and purposes to be a wonderful and generous commitment from some of the city’s most powerful and successful business people to help improve the lives of the less fortunate. Or so it seemed.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS From left, Mark Chipman, Tom Lussier (front) and Larry Morrissette pose inside the new gym being renovated as part of the new Gonzaga independent school in Point Douglas. They are working together to ensure the new school positively enhances aboriginal culture.

Two months later, the Gonzaga Middle School was embroiled in a bitter and dangerous public relations battle with aboriginal activists. They accused Gonzaga of representing the second coming of the residential school system. Those activists saw the involvement of a church, and the relationship with two established private schools, as the most recent attempt by non-aboriginals to suppress indigenous culture and identity.

School representatives called the allegations “odious.” 

This was a skirmish that had the potential to derail a promising initiative while galvanizing skepticism and fear in the aboriginal community. So, it was not surprising that following the initial news reports about the dispute, hardly a word had been spoken publicly about the school.

That is, until this week.

School officials are now standing arm in arm with the activists who assailed the project to launch a public art project that — rather than perpetuating the mistakes of the past — will ensure Gonzaga school stands as a memorial to the ravages of the residential school experience.

Gonzaga principal Tom Lussier said the school is inviting children within its catchment area (Portage Avenue to the south; Arlington Street to the west, Redwood Avenue to the north and to the east, the Red River) to submit artwork that explores the history of the residential school experience and the spirit of reconciliation.

Submissions can be delivered to the recently renovated school Aug. 20, where a special feast will be held.

Artists selected to be included in the mural will receive a $25 honorarium. The artwork will be digitally reproduced and assembled into a giant mural that will cover an outside wall of the school, located on Maple Street east of Main Street.

“We have made a commitment to reconciliation, and this mural will demonstrate that,” Lussier said.

The mural is, however, just the most visible sign of an intensive process of community consultation that began before controversy erupted, and continued well after.

Lussier said school officials had made major inroads to the indigenous community and other communities represented in the inner city and North End, to ensure no one would fear the presence of an institution that has ties to the Catholic Church.

When concerns were raised, efforts were redoubled, Lussier said.

“Mark Chipman, (University of Manitoba Prof.) Niigaan Sinclair, and (NDP MLA) Kevin Chief took it upon themselves to follow up with community members that we hadn’t got to before the original announcement.

“They wanted everyone to know that we are so totally different than the residential school environment. We always knew there was going to be some response from the people who were residential school survivors… but we were concerned about the magnitude of that response.”

Larry Morrissette, a teacher and community activist, was among the most outspoken. Initially, he and other aboriginal activists argued it was an insult to the survivors of the residential school system for a church-based private school to try to inject itself into inner-city and North End communities.

One activist told the Catholic Register it was like “giving the middle finger” to all aboriginal people.

In an interview, Morrissette said his view of the school, and the people behind it, have changed dramatically.

“We’ve come a long way,” Morrissette said. “Getting a chance to listen to their side of the story, there is a lot of sincerity there. What can I say? I was really pleasantly surprised. We were expecting a lot of resistance because that’s what we usually get, but they really wanted to work with us.”

Morrissette said he is convinced the school will make no attempt to suppress indigenous culture and may, in fact, become a positive force for the enhancement of efforts to teach aboriginal youth more about their language, culture and spiritual traditions. “Our concerns have been addressed.”

Gonzaga, expected to open for its first school year this fall, will occupy buildings that were formerly part of the St. Andrews Ukrainian Catholic Church. The buildings were erected in the late 1960s to be used as a school that never came to fruition. Since then, it was used as a community hall and youth drop-in centre.

Gonzaga has invested $1 million to bring the buildings up to code, Lussier said.

Renovations are almost finished.

For its first full school year, Gonzaga will only accept 20 students, but that number will increase to 60 in subsequent school years, Lussier said. 

The students accepted into the program will not have to pay any tuition or other school fees. Their enrolment includes participation in after-school and summer programs, he added.


Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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