Manitoba's Education Minister, James Allum says concerns about Gonzaga Middle School, like those raised by indigenous educator Larry Morrissette and North End advocate James Favel, are "genuine."

"I think those concerns are genuine because we have a history here of educational practices of not being culturally relevant and not being culturally sensitive," he said, referencing the former residential school system in Manitoba.

Morrissette and Favel argue in an opinion piece CBC published Wednesday that plans to open the school should not go forward, given what is known about what happened in residential schools after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's work.

"The Catholic Church has caused us enough damage. It is time for this to stop. All Manitobans committed to the pursuit of truth and reconciliation should join us in demanding that any and all activities of the Gonzaga Middle School be halted immediately and permanently," they wrote. 

Gonzaga Middle School is modeled after several inner-city American schools and a school in Regina, Sask. which provide Catholic education to at-risk youth at no cost to parents.

An option for indigenous Catholics

Many members of the indigenous community are practicing Catholics, said Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg and have every right to send their children to whatever school they want.

Johnston said Gonzaga's principal Tom Lussier assured him the school would not pressure students to abandon their cultural roots. 


Gonzaga Middle School will open in Winnipeg's North End in fall 2016. (CBC)

"I can tell you if we hear anything, if that issue arises out of children going to that school, then we will be one of the first to step forward and challenge that," said Johnston.

No comparison to residential schools: principal

Lussier calls the comparison between Gonzaga Middle School and residential schools "inaccurate."

"The students will attend by choice, which wasn't the case with residential schools," he said. "They will remain living with their families."

While the school is Catholic, Lussier said he — and the rest of Gonzaga — is committed to including and respecting the faith and spiritual traditions of indigenous students.

"With respect to immersing students in Catholic culture, first of all I didn't ever say that," he said, referring to Morrissette and Favel's opinion piece, which said Lussier "acknowledges that the culture of the school will be Catholic, and goes so far as to say that the school "will immerse students in Catholic culture."

"I don't know where they are quoting me from. I certainly didn't say that," Lussier told CBC.

'Right of choice'

The government respects parents' right of choice to send their children to any school, said Education Minister Allum.

"Our obligation is to work on the public school system and do everything we can to ensure student success," he said.

On Wednesday Allum announced new funding for indigenous education in Manitoba along with the creation of a website to track student achievement in the province.

Winnipeg School Division chair, Mark Wasyliw, called on the founders of Gonzaga, including True North Sports and Entertainment chair Mark Chipman, to support these steps and invest in Winnipeg public schools rather than create an independent school.

"We already have the buildings, we have the teachers, we already have the expertise and we can take some of that private money and we can make it go a lot farther than 60 children that they hand pick," he said.