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First Nation boarding school nothing like residential schools of past

For many, the term 'residential school' conjures up painful memories of children snatched from their families and communities, stripped of their culture, and in some cases, abuses. In Manitoba, some First Nations youth still leave their communities to study at a boarding school.
Glenda Harper, 16, is in her second year at Southeast Collegiate. She comes from the St. Theresa Point First Nation, a fly-in community over 600 kilometres north of Winnipeg. (Tim Fontaine)

For many, the term 'residential school' conjures up painful memories of children snatched from their families and communities, stripped of their culture, and in some cases, abuses.

In Manitoba, some First Nations youth still leave their homes and communities for 10 months at a time, to live and study at a boarding school. 

Sheryl McCorrister, the principal of Southeast Collegiate, says that's where any similarity ends.

"It's very different from residential school. The kids are participant here. It's all about them," she says.  

Pursuing dreams

Grade 12 student Angus Berens comes from Berens River First Nation, 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg. He dreams of helping his people. and he says that means he needs to finish high school

"I wanted to be an engineer, and then I wanted to be a cook, and then I wanted to be a carpenter."

Grade 12 student Angus Berens comes from Berens River First Nation, 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg. (Tim Fontaine)


"But since this past year and a half, I'm kind of leaning to working with youth. I'm actually thinking of going to Brandon [Manitoba] and studying psychology so I can work with youth for a few years," says Berens.

A total of 165 students have made the same journey to Southeast Collegiate this year, from 16 First Nations across Manitoba.

"Usually they don't have a Grade 10,11 or 12 so they have to come here for their education," says McCorrister.
"A lot of people don't know that this school exists for that purpose."

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.

The campus is a series of buildings that once housed a seminary and includes classrooms, a cafeteria and gymnasium, as well as the dorms where the students live. It has the feel of a small college but many of the walls are covered with indigenous art or posters.

Creating community 

"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," McCorrister says.

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)
One of the people helping and guiding those students 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.'"

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."

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.
Keeping students safe

Glenda Harper, 16, is in her second year at the school. She comes from the St. Theresa Point First Nation — a fly-in community over 600 kilometers north of Winnipeg.

"Yeah, it's hard," she says. "But there's other people I can talk to and they'll feel the same too. And it helps me."

"It's hard for the first two months because you miss your mom, you miss your granny and grandpa, you miss your brothers and sisters and you just miss home, generally," says Angus Berens.

'We've got to be the parents to these kids and we've got to help and guide them,' says Southeast Collegiate principal/director Sheryl McCorrister (CBC)
But there are times when being homesick is the least of the student's worries.

Ten months ago, a student at Southeast Collegiate was brutally attacked when she went with friends to the city's downtown.

Rinelle Harper, 16, nearly died and spent weeks recovering in hospital. The attack also made headlines across Canada.

"For that to happen to one of our students at the school here, it was devastating for all of us," Berens says. "Because we're a family, we take each other as family." 

"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."

You would think an incident like that would keep students away, but enrolment is actually up 15 per cent from last year and there's a waiting list.

Education 
"I always tell the students, as Justice Murray Sinclair said, 'we got to this point through residential school and it will be through education that we get out,'" says McCorrister.

And being away from home for ten months is a sacrifice Angus Berens says he's willing to make.

"It's tough in the long run but then after a while you start seeing why you leave home," he says. 

"Because we've got to better ourselves and the only way we can better ourselves is to leave the community and come back to the community later and make it a better place."

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