February 22, 2016

A Jesuit-inspired middle school in a low-income neighbourhood of Winnipeg has been accused of cultural genocide and compared to the infamous residential schools that devastated Aboriginal communities across Canada.

In January, Point Douglas neighbourhood community activist James Favel and social worker Larry Morrissette published an angry call for the Gonzaga Middle School to put a halt to plans to set up shop this fall in the area just north of Winnipeg's downtown core.

A Catholic school with a Catholic culture means another attempt to strip indigenous children of their culture and spiritual traditions, the two said.

"The Catholic Church has caused us enough damage. It is time for this to stop," Favel and Morrissette wrote on the CBC website.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the residential schools as "cultural genocide" because of their 130-year policy of separating Aboriginal children from their families.

But Gonzaga President Tom Lussier said this description of Gonzaga is inaccurate, uninformed and insulting.

"Comparisons between us and a residential school are odious," said Lussier.

Gonzaga Middle School will be Canada's second Nativity school. Mother Teresa Middle School in Regina is the first.

The Jesuits pioneered the Nativity school concept in American inner cities in the 1970s to offer students an intensive education prior to high school.

Nativity schools have built a reputation for breaking the cycle of poverty. Longer school days, a longer school year, smaller class sizes, one-on-one tutoring, social work support for students and their families and mentoring that follows students through high school and university are all part of the model.

Favel and Morrissette characterize this as a "country club" education offered in exchange for conformity to Catholic religious practice.


Lussier said students in the northeast downtown and the Point Douglas areas of Winnipeg need more educational resources due to a "socio-economic disadvantage" in the area.

Regina's Mother Teresa Middle School opened five years ago and is gaining trust in the native community.

"You're dealing with a group of people who don't trust easily, and rightfully so," said Curtis Kleisinger, executive director of the school. "We've gone from 50 per cent Aboriginal-First Nations to 82 per cent this year. Next year, we'll probably be in the 90s.

"That shows you we're gaining faith in the Aboriginal community, with the grandmothers."


Nativity schools are not residential; students live with their families, which receive support through the school.

Students who rarely turned up in class before their experience at Mother Teresa are now in high school averaging 92 per cent attendance.

Lussier said the schools do not target any ethnic, racial or religious minority, but aim to give poor children an education that will change their life prospects.

Gonzaga School will be sensitive to the history of residential schools, he said. The curriculum will include teaching on indigenous culture and history "in a way that respects the fact that we are all treaty people and we have a shared history."