Acting as an ally for accessible education

Photo: Dr. Jim Silver and Kathy Mallet in front of Merchants Corner, 2018.

Winnipeg experienced rapid growth and immigration in the ‘20s and ‘30s; add a world war to the mix and it’s easy to understand why the need for trained social workers grew substantially in the following decades.

In early 1942, University of Manitoba responded by proposing a School of Social Work to be situated within the Faculty of Arts and Science. University administrators approached the provincial government for the funds needed to hire staff but were turned down – advised instead to make an appeal to a private American foundation endowed by John D. Rockefeller Sr. When the Rockefeller Foundation also rejected the University’s appeal, The Winnipeg Foundation stepped up. It provided $3,750 per year for three years to hire a professor from the University’s Faculty of Education as a Director of Social Work, and a Field Supervisor to oversee students in their practical work.

The new one-year diploma program began in October 1943, with an initial group of 23 students, 22 of whom were women. Bursaries were provided by grain company executive W.A. Murphy, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Junior League of Winnipeg.

By all accounts, the program was immediately successful and by 1945, demand for enrolment was said to exceed the school’s capacity. However, there was much concern that support for the program was temporary. By 1946, when The Foundation’s funds ran out, the provincial and federal governments agreed to keep it running. To shore up the program, The Foundation provided another three years of support to hire an Assistant Professor. When the School switched to a two-year program in 1952, something it had planned to do from the beginning, The Foundation provided the funds to hire more staff. The Winnipeg Foundation was integral in the establishment of the present-day Faculty of Social Work and it marked the beginning of a long and collaborative relationship.

In the early 2000s, The Winnipeg Foundation’s Moffat Family Fund allocated $1 million to support a new facility to house the Winnipeg Education Centre (WEC) in a permanent space on Selkirk Avenue. WEC was a collaborative initiative between the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Social Work, the University of Winnipeg’s Bachelor of Education program and a number of local social service agencies. WEC provides targeted post-secondary opportunities to mature students from surrounding inner-city neighbourhoods with the goal of training them to become teachers or professional social workers. Students attending WEC are drawn from immigrant, Indigenous and other communities that face barriers to education.

In 2005, WEC was renamed the William Norrie Centre (WNC) in recognition of the contributions made by the former Winnipeg Mayor – and Winnipeg Foundation Board member – to education, public life and the volunteer sector.

In 2006, The Foundation received a gift from Derek and Polly Riley to establish a Scholarship Fund to provide bursaries to WNC students. The bursaries are awarded annually to WNC students to assist with housing costs and living support while attending the school.

The groundwork for the Selkirk Avenue relocation of WNC was laid by Urban Circle Training Centre, a non-profit training and education delivery program that was started in 1990 to provide training to Indigenous men and women. In 2002, Urban Circle raised the capital funds for a new home in Winnipeg’s North End on Selkirk Avenue. The Winnipeg Foundation contributed $100,000 to the $1.4 million project that involved the redevelopment of an abandoned retail store into two floors of classrooms and office facilities.

The notorious Merchants Hotel, also known as “the Merch,” was a symbol of Selkirk Avenue decline. The tireless efforts of community groups, local activists, Elders, residents and students working together for change in the neighbourhood, led to a multi-government and agency effort to redevelop the site.

Merchants Corner opened in 2018 as an innovative educational, student housing and retail complex. It includes affordable housing and serves as a community and educational hub hosting the University of Winnipeg’s Department of Inner-City Studies and Community Education Development Association’s (CEDA) Pathways to Education program.

The Winnipeg Foundation’s Moffat Family Fund contributed almost $1 million to the redevelopment and programming at Merchants Corner. The project helped solidify Selkirk Avenue as an “education alley,” building on the momentum started by the William Norrie Centre and Urban Circle Training Centre, all with the support of The Winnipeg Foundation.

This story was informed by research done by James Burns and Dr. Gordon Goldsborough, which appeared in The Foundation’s 90th anniversary publication.

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