The new École Catholique Louis Riel is being heralded as a place of joy and creativity. That from Grande Prairie & District Catholic Schools Superintendent Dr. Jessie Shirley as she and the community marked the O’Brien Lake West facility’s grand opening Friday.
The event was attended by Minister of Education Adriana LaGrange and multiple other government officials, and included a blessing by Archbishop Gerard Pettipas as well as prayers from Father Remi Hebert and Elder Loretta Parenteau-English with her son and Catholic board trustee Jermiah English.
Designed by Stantec Group, the 85,000-square-foot facility is estimated by the province to cost $36.1 million. LaGrange told the crowd that planning for the school was a long process, with plans first announced in March 2018, but well worth it. She told MyGrandePrairieNow.com afterwards that she recognizes the city is young and dynamic.
“I’m hearing yes, indeed it’s growing; that’s exciting news, particularly for schools, school divisions, because we know when more children are coming to school, when we know there’s a growing community, we know our economy’s flourishing, and the province will be in good, good hands.”
Also on display at Friday’s celebration was the school’s new logo. It incorporates a cross at the centre to represent Catholic faith being at the centre of everything the school does surrounded by a medicine wheel to represent Indigenous teachings. It also includes an infinity symbol to represent the immortality of the Métis nation, a wild prairie rose to acknowledge being in Alberta, a fleur-de-lis to symbolize French culture, and small circles to represent the seeds of knowledge passed down through generations.
“The great thing about this logo is that every part of it has meaning,” said Principal Robert Simard. “There’s nothing there that is simply there for aesthetics.”
As of Friday, 405 grade K-7 French Immersion students are enrolled at the school. It has a capacity of 900 and serves both city and rural families.
School board chair Russ Snoble says there was initial scepticism that the Catholic school division could fill two French Immersion schools, alongside École St-Gérard, but both have more than 400 enrolled early in the school year.
“You had a school that was only 1,000. Now you have people happy in their community to have a school that they can come to; there’s parking, the staff love it, the kids can have playground space to play, so because we’re one of the first in this neighbourhood it does attract a lot of people to think about what is the education that my child can have.”
The École St-Gérard Playground Fundraising Society has been hard at work for years to raise the funds for two accessible playgrounds at the new school. Construction is currently underway.
The division also faced some questioning over the name chosen for the school. Snoble notes it’s typical for Catholic schools to be named after saints, but they decided to go in the direction of a so-called “rebel” instead following consultation with the community.
“Especially recognizing Louis Riel as acting on Truth and Reconciliation,” he explains, adding that when he attended the Papal Mass in Edmonton this summer, Pope Francis encouraged the congregation to take action and not just rely on words. “So it was kind of like a little reinforcement of the step that we took.”
While in Grande Prairie, LaGrange says she took a couple of days to meet with school boards from around the region. She says the top issues being raised are a concern for the mental health and wellness of staff and students coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as transportation.
“Some of the challenges that we’re experiencing particularly on recruiting and retaining school bus drivers, rising costs, inflation, those type of things.”
Here in Grande Prairie, she says she’s especially heard the need for more capital infrastructure and spaces for students. She maintains her ministry is planning for next year and evaluating requests from school divisions across the province.
Grande Prairie & District Catholic Schools will be opening another school next year as the replacement for St. Patrick Catholic School is under construction. That K-8 English school is estimated to cost $24.4 million.