Portage la Prairie saw more than 100 jobs up and leave town last week, and with that follows the history of what was originally called, "The Industrial Training School."

Known as the Agassiz Youth Centre from 1977 onward, the origins of the 59-acre youth correctional centre operated by the Manitoba Government go far beyond that.

The facility opened its doors in February 1910 with the transfer of 20 boys from the Central District Gaol. The original intention of the training school was to deal with "juvenile delinquents" by giving them work-related training, with education in trades such as, tailoring, shoe-making, gardening, carpentry, blacksmithing, baking, cooking, farming, and sewing.

From 1911 to 1915, the original concept of private rooms for the children was abandoned in favour of dormitories. Several buildings were added to the school's complex, including a three-storey school building containing a gymnasium as well as an addition to the original building, housing a bakery, laundry, and more dormitory accommodation; a blacksmith shop; a piggery; a slaughterhouse; and replacements for a barn, root house, implement shed, and granary which ended up getting destroyed by a fire caused by a lightning strike in 1912.

In 1931, the facility was renamed the "Manitoba Home for Boys." And three new buildings were constructed next to the school building, made up of a two-storey administration building and two brick cottages.

According to archives, Harry Atkinson, principal of the home from 1926 to 1948, was not a proponent of corporal punishment. He instead practiced a positive approach to discipline.

"I question … the value of physical punishment as a deterrent or a means of discipline. While there may be a place for physical fear in the discipline of youth, the higher methods must be adhered to, or the school will make very little progress in the work of character building. Real discipline comes from within," says Atkinson.

During Atkinson's duration, the facilities were described as two one-storey cottages that could accommodate 25 boys. Each had a dormitory, a dressing room, bathrooms, a dining room, a sick room, a service kitchen, a suite for the live-in married couple, who were to act as a "father and mother" to the boys, and a basement recreation area. All meals were made and prepared in the central kitchen and then delivered to the cottages.

While the windows of the cottages were not barred, it is noted that the boys' rooms were covered from the inside with padlocked steel grating.

In Atkinson's yearly report from 1939, he wrote about the objectives for boys living in the Home. 

  • 1. Teach them to respect the rights of others. 
  • 2. Teach them to respect the property of others. 
  • 3. Teach them to obey the rules of the Institution which have been built up to train them in social living.  
  • 4. Teach them to enjoy work and introduce them to skills according to their ability. 

As things got tense overseas with the Second World War, the Department of National Defence chose to take over the building in the fall of 1940 for a training centre. This forced the staff and boys to relocate to emergency housing in Carman and the Whiteshell Forest Reserve. However, they returned to Portage following the war's end. The move was completed by October 8th, 1947, after a $110,000.00 reconditioning of the buildings. Harry Atkinson retired at the end of January 1948.

The facility was officially renamed to the "Agassiz Youth Centre" in 1977, still carrying that title until its closure last week.

Local historian James Kostuchuk, the man who provided much of this information to PortageOnline, talks about his general conclusions from the early days of Agassiz.

"The earliest history of the facility goes back to the earliest times of our province when we had young people who found themselves on the wrong side of the law, and as a society, we had to do something about that. So, it became a provincial facility for dealing with young offenders. What interested me the most when I read the history of that facility was that I expected the history to be quite dark. But when I look at what they were attempting to do 100 years ago, in many ways, it was quite progressive," continues Kostuchuk. "The idea was to take young people who are struggling and give them the skills that they needed to cope with working in the modern world. They put a big emphasis on training, and it was only in recent years that there was even a fence put around it."

Kostuchuk notes that he is saddened to see the job losses but also understands that in many ways this closure makes sense as times change.

"I think the numbers of people that are incarcerated are declining, and that's a good thing. Also, those that do end up being in detention, it just makes sense to put them closer to where their families are, and typically that'll be Winnipeg, " says Kostuchuk."It's (Agassiz) been very important here for over 100 years. As much as we might celebrate that we're changing attitudes toward how we deal with young offenders, and also the fact that things may be improving in our province from a crime perspective, it's going to be hard to lose those jobs."

The Manitoba Government announced on March 24th that the Centre would close after nine years of declining counts in youth custody.

PortageOnline has reached out to the provincial government in an attempt to document the inside of Agassiz in hopes of learning more from this historic building.

MLA Ian Wishart told PortageOnline on March 27th that some of the Agassiz site would be used for the new hospital construction in Portage la Prairie.