Necessary Idealism: A History of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate

While the legacies of Anglo and French schooling are well studied, Canada also has a long history of religious schools founded by ethnic groups that were neither English Protestants, nor French Catholics. The Mennonites, for example, were convinced to immigrate to Canada in the late nineteenth century in part by federal government promises that they could create their own education system. Mennonite interest in education, according to John W. Friesen, can be traced back to Prussian Mennonites who believed in a minimalist education that would “perpetuate the German language and acquaint their children with the Bible and Mennonite distinctives.”[^1]

A popular contemporary perception of ethno-religious private schools such as those of the Mennonites is that they were created to perpetuate narrow understandings of religious belief, and to limit—or at least carefully direct—the integration of students with the wider society in which they found themselves. The history of Westgate Mennonite Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba provides some contrast to this perception. Westgate was established as much as an alternative to existing Mennonite schools as to the public school system. Its founders believed the existing Mennonite high schools in the province of Manitoba provided too narrow a perspective, both religiously and socially. The formation was thus the opposite of a trend that had occurred among Mennonites in the United States a generation earlier. There, schools like Hesston College were formed in part as an objection to the perceived laxity of older Mennonite institutions like Goshen College[^2]

Westgate

Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, originally known as Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI), was founded by Mennonites in Winnipeg in 1958. It is one of hundreds of small ethnic private schools that had proliferated across Canada by the mid-twentieth century.[^3] The particular form of ethno-religious identity that the school attempted to inculcate in students differed from the Mennonitism promoted by other Mennonites in the province, and also changed over time. As a result, the school’s history—and possibly the history of other, similar schools—defies simple categories of assimilation or cultural resistance.

Victor Peters, one of Westgate’s founders, promoted a vision of the school as an alternative to Anglo-Canadian assimilation, even as he invoked Anglo-Canadian scholars and politicians in support of his perspective. The school’s objective was not to preserve a static representation of Mennonite culture and belief, but—in his words—to “take on the good aspects” of non-Mennonites while “discarding the less valuable aspects” of Mennonite tradition.[^4] Over the years, this process resulted in Westgate defining Mennonitism in ways that at times led to demands that the school enforce exactly the kind of static definition of identity the founders had wanted to avoid.

In honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the school in 2007, Westgate commissioned the writing of their history. This peer-reviewed publication is now in print at CMU Press. The book’s title, Necessary Idealism, is taken from the initial conversations of the nine men and one woman who met in February 1957, to discuss forming a new Mennonite high school in Winnipeg. Doing so, they concluded, would require not only significant funds but also “the necessary idealism.” This idealism was tested throughout the school’s history, both by those within and without, and the school changed somewhat in response. Despite those changes, the core nature of the school persisted: Westgate was an alternative, not only to the secular world, but to the limits of the Mennonite one.

[^1] John W. Friesen, “Studies in Mennonite Education: The State of the Art.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 133.
[^2] John Ellsworth Hartzler, Education Among the Mennonites of America Danvers IL: The Central Mennonite Publishing Board, 1925), 165.
[^3] See T. Krukowski, “Canadian Private Ethnic Schools,” Comparative Education 
4, no. 3 (June 1968): 199-204.
[^4] Westgate Mennonite Collegiate archives, untitled typescript with handwritten notation: “V. Petersan die Gruenderversammlung”