I was interested in touring the school that caused so much controversy in the city last year when Gonzaga Middle School (GMS) announced plans to open a private, independent Jesuit school for low income students in the inner city in the fall of 2016.
One of the goals of this newest inner city school: getting Indigenous students in the area to attend.
Because of the school’s affiliation to the church, there was a major back lash by some members of the Indigenous community. I was part of that group opposed to the school. There were concerns it seemed like a modern day version of residential school.
At the time, I was a Board Member of Winnipeg Inner City Missions. One of our community members had her children enrolled in the school.
I questioned Winnipeg Inner City Missions Executive Director, Rev. Margaret Mullin, as well as some Presbyterian Church members and the Board, why they were in support of the school. Why, when the Presbyterian Church had such a tragic history of residential schools with Indigenous people, would one encourage a community member to have her children enrolled in the school?
I was upset to the point of wanting to resign as a Board Member.
I spoke to Rev. Mullin about why she encouraged two children who attended her church to enroll in the private school.
“Both children were failing in public schools,” Rev. Mullin said. “The social worker, who was from an Indigenous Child and Family Agency, and I, met with the Principal to discuss our concerns,” she said.
“We asked lots of questions, like how was Indigenous culture to be part of the class. Not be Christianized. I believed it was a real opportunity for the children.”
I asked Rev. Mullin what reassurances she had the children wouldn’t be Christianized.
“Close contact with the school and the children involved in attending the private school,” she replied.
I then phoned Tom Lussier, Executive Director and Principal of the private school, and asked about what the school offers the children in the class.
Lussier clarified that it is not “Indigenous spiritually” but rather “Indigenous studies and culture.” He confirmed there is no Elder in the school, but they are “getting input from various Indigenous sources.”
I was willing to leave my issues that I had with residential schools and churches to find what this private school offered to its Indigenous students. I am a residential school survivor and had attended a Presbyterian residential school in Ontario as a young child.
My mind is open, but my heart is closed at what the Gonzaga Middle School is doing for Indigenous students and the support given by the Presbyterian Church to have a community member attend the school. There are too many reminders of my childhood residential school experience, namely, ‘Attend school for the betterment of the Indian child’.
No Indigenous spiritually offered. No Elder on site. Still an attempt at balancing both needs of two worlds, two cultures. Not perfect, but a move in the right direction. Time will tell if this private school is taking the steps to right the wrongs of the past.