Sixteen years ago, five-year-old Brigitte Burrows snipped a navy blue ribbon before a cheering crowd and officially opened the new home of École La Mission.
This month, as schools across Alberta reopened during the pandemic, Burrows was back to her old school for her first day on the job as a teacher.
“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher,” Burrows said, and she had known for years that she wanted to teach at her old school and give back to her community.
“For me, this place has always felt like home.”
École La Mission celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. Among its new teachers this fall is Burrows, who spent her elementary school years there and grew up in the Francophone school system.
Burrows said she had a lot of fun during the first week getting to know the kids and seeing them smile when they weren’t wearing masks, and had plenty of questions for her co-workers, some of whom had taught her as a student.
One of those teachers, Pascal Morissette, said Burrows still called her “Monsieur Pascal” when she served as a student teacher at École La Mission two years ago. He laughed when she finally addressed him as just “Pascal” this year.
“For me, that was, ‘Okay, she’s now a grown-up.’”
École La Mission was St. Albert’s first Francophone school, and was initially housed in the St. Albert Public School district office on Sir Winston Churchill Ave.
“At that time, there was only six classrooms and no gymnasium at all,” said Morissette, who joined the school in 1997.
The school tried three times in three years to find a home of its own, the Gazette archives report. Parents rejected plans to share a building with École Father Jan, and the then-Protestant board refused to give up one of their school sites in Erin Ridge. Plans to build a school in Heritage Lakes met fierce opposition from residents who wanted to see its land stay as a park or opposed a school that was not open to everyone.
“We had to fight for our rights to live our identity as Franco-Albertans,” Morissette said.
Eventually, the provincial government had to issue a cabinet order and overturn a subdivision and development board ruling so the school could go ahead.
The Gazette archives report that some 102 students, including Burrows, arrived at the new $3.7-million school on Oct. 14, 2003. The school boasted a full library, gymnasium, computer lab and playground, and was the first new Francophone school to be built in Alberta.
“For us, it was heaven,” Morissette said, and a chance to stand tall.
“We’re here to stay and proud of our culture.”
Burrows said she wasn’t sure how she got picked to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony held in March 2004, but guessed it had something to do with her grandparents, as they were fierce advocates for Francophone education.
“It was a big event,” Morissette recalled of the ceremony, with then-lieutentant-governor Lois Hole, Mounties in red serge uniforms, and future mayor Nolan Crouse all in attendance.
Burrows said she had good memories of her time in Kindergarten and was still friends with some of her classmates.
“I just remember thinking, ‘Wow, we are very lucky.’”
Burrows credited her teachers at École La Mission for inspiring her career choice, adding that as a child she never realized the amount of work teachers put into the fun times she had at school.
Burrows said the school has grown substantially since that ribbon-cutting with the addition of three portables, and now has so many students that its Grade 5 and 6 classes had to be moved to École Alexandre-Taché.
But some aspects, such as the clay tile mosaic in the front lobby, have stayed the same. Burrows said she made sure to point out her contribution to the mosaic (a flower on the right side) to her students this month.
“I hope to inspire kids to being teachers like me,” she said.