Students at Winnipeg's Southeast Collegiate have not forgotten Rinelle Harper

One year since Rinelle Harper, 16, was attacked and left for dead, another school year begins at her Winnipeg high school - where all 165 students come from northern Manitoba First Nations.

Ten months after 16-year-old attacked, teachers and students have safety front and centre

"They tell us to avoid downtown," says Jonas Clarke Yellowback, who comes to the school from Manto Sipi Cree Nation. (Tim Fontaine)

It's been almost one year since Rinelle Harper was viciously attacked in downtown Winnipeg and left for dead near the Assiniboine River on Nov. 7, 2014.

The 16-year-old Garden Hill First Nation girl was attending Southeast Collegiate in Winnipeg, where all 165 students come from remote indigenous communities across the province and live in residence.

As those students return and classes begin for another 10-month school year, the effects of that attack are still felt.

Glenda Harper, 17, says she thinks about Rinelle Harper every day, and plans to stick close to campus this year. (Tim Fontaine)
"I think about it every day," says Glenda Harper, 17, who comes from the St. Theresa Point First Nation, a fly-in community over 600 kilometers north of Winnipeg.

"It scares me but I just stay around here and listen to the people that are taking care of me."

Safety strategies, buddy system

One of the people who works directly with the students each day is Will Hudson, the school's lodge manager of six years.

"A house parent, really, is what I do," Hudson says. "Students call me 'the lodge-father.'"

Hudson says administratively not much has changed since then, but safety is always on his mind.

He was at Southeast Collegiate during the time Harper was attacked and fighting for her life in hospital.

The walls in lodge manager Will Hudson's office covered with messages and signatures from former students of Southeast Collegiate, spanning 6 years. (Tim Fontaine)
"It was a tough situation and hard to talk about, to tell you the truth," Hudson says. "Because you never want to see a student like that."

Before classes begin the school holds an orientation where students are warned about the dangers of the city, including gangs, alcohol and drugs.

"They tell us to avoid downtown," says Jonas Clarke Yellowback, who comes to the school from Manto Sipi Cree Nation — located 850 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. "Nothing good comes from downtown."

There's always been a curfew and if students leave, they must always sign out of the school and provide phone numbers for where they're supposed to be. If they don't return at the scheduled time, parents are contacted and asked to help with a search.

Angus Berens is from the Berens River First Nation, a community that only recently has an all-weather road. 

He's part of the of school's buddy system, where new students are paired with those more familiar with the city.

"For a lot of kids who come here for the first time, they don't know their way so we've got to look out for each other," he says.

"But I think what they really face is fear of getting involved with the wrong people or fear of getting lost and not being welcomed into a community."

Building sense of family

Situated in Fairfield Park in south Winnipeg, Southeast Collegiate is owned by the Southeast Resource Development Council, a tribal council made up of eight Manitoba First Nations.

"Usually their communities don't have a grade 10, 11 or 12 so they have to come here for their education," said principal and director Sheryl McCorrister.

Southeast Collegiate principal Sheryl McCorrister says the school takes several approaches to fostering a sense of community. (Tim Fontaine)
"These kids are gone from the people they love for ten months, so we're going to work from the heart. We've got to be the parents to these kids and we've got to help and guide them."

The school takes several approaches to fostering a sense of community, especially since students frequently experience homesickness soon after arriving. Those who come from the same community are often housed together for the first few months — but it doesn't mean there's the usual cliques seen in other high schools.

"Quite often after a few months they'll try and switch up and say 'if you're from Berens but I come from Pauingassi we can still room together'" Will Hudson says.

The walls of Hudson's office are covered with signatures and messages from the many students he's looked after over the years — so many that kids have started writing on the ceiling.

"Everyone binds together because the one common thing they all share is that everyone is away from home."

That sense of community and security is what keeps Glenda Harper close to the Southeast campus — and closer to her goal of finishing high school and becoming a chef.

"I feel safe here."