Abuse claims investigated at boys’ school

Published January 1, 2000

The Anglican boys’ boarding school that operated in Selkirk, Man., from 1962 to 1990 conjures up a mix of memories for those who attended: for some it was a challenging boot camp that made them into better human beings; for others it was a physical and mental prison that ruined their lives.

And today St. John’s Cathedral Boys’ School is the subject of police investigations.

Freelance writer Mike Maunder cherishes his time at St. John’s. “As a student I was a pretty screwed up little kid going in the wrong direction,” he said in an interview. He arrived at the school when he was 13, two years after his father died. Later he returned to St. John’s as a teacher and headmaster, and now is writing a book about the school.

“As I have talked to other students, many of them have said the same: they were hanging out with the wrong group of kids and they came to St. John’s and it turned them around.”

Mr. Maunder wrote a feature about St. John’s for the Winnipeg Free Press in September, just before a school reunion. His mostly-positive article sparked a personal reflection by another student, Rick Wiens, who described the school as “a prison of body, mind and spirit.” There are other former students, he wrote, “who came out of the place not celebrating ‘the joy of life’ but desperate to survive its pain.”

Mr. Wiens says the school was “singularly lacking in imagination or even the simple recognition that boys are different, and what is simple for one can be absolutely soul-destroying for another.” He says he was only eight years old when he first thought suicide might be the best way to deal with his perceived inadequacies.

St. John’s was founded by Mr. Wiens’s father, Frank Wiens, and Ted Byfield, who later started a group of conservative, western Canadian news magazines. The school was “absolutely unique in Canadian education,” writes Mr. Maunder: “A Christian community that paid teachers a dollar a day; practised corporal punishment; staged 1,600-kilometre canoe trips and had the boys do all the chores.”

Mr. Byfield went on to establish two other schools patterned after the Selkirk model, one in Alberta and one in Ontario.

In its later years, St. John’s was fraught with hard times and controversy. The school closed in 1990, “after several years of bad publicity, declining enrolment and dwindling funds,” according to Mr. Maunder. Months after the closure a guest lecturer was charged with sexually assaulting six boys but later acquitted.

Earlier this year, a former Anglican priest associated with the school was charged with sexual abuse dating back more than 20 years.

And RCMP media relations officer Sgt. Steve Saunders confirmed that police are investigating allegations of abuse by a staff member of an undisclosed number of students at the school in the early 1980s.



  • Debra Fieguth

    Debra Fieguth lives in Winnipeg and is associate editor of Christianweek.

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