James McKinnon comes to St. Michael’s after four years as director of education with the Bruce Grey Catholic District School Board. Photo by Mickey Conlon

St. Michael's College School gets new principal

  • August 29, 2019

James McKinnon knows he joins the St. Michael’s College School community at a pivotal time in its storied history, stepping into the cauldron as the school rebounds from a tough 2018-19 year that saw an unexpected glare of scandal tarnish the school’s reputation.

But he steps in without any trepidation, believing that the Basilians and the board that run the Catholic institution in midtown Toronto have confronted the issues and are putting in place the structures that will help the all-boys school rebound from a hazing and bullying scandal that drew much unwanted attention when seven students were expelled and faced criminal charges stemming from incidents surrounding the school’s junior football team. (One student has subsequently had charges against him dropped, and two others have gone through the court system, though the results of the process are not known as per conditions in the Youth Criminal Justice Act).

“I think it’s important when you walk into these situations you have as much information as you can,” said McKinnon, who in August began his tenure as principal at St. Michael’s after the scandal led to the resignation of his predecessor, Greg Reeves, and chair of the board Fr. Jefferson Thompson, as well as the suspension of the varsity basketball and junior football programs (though both have since been reinstated).

“People have been very supportive and open and transparent about what has transpired and where we are and where we need to go,” said McKinnon. “That’s unparalleled in my experience.” 

The challenge, he sees, is continuing down this path by enlisting all stakeholders in the St. Michael’s community, from students to staff, parents to the leadership group, in taking responsibility and leadership in making school life better.

It’s not a challenge unique to St. Michael’s. As unveiled by the recent Respect and Culture Review Committee report commissioned in the wake of the scandal, instances of bullying — one in five students last year said they had been bullied at St. Michael’s — were not out of whack with other schools. But that’s not good enough, said McKinnon.

“We’ve been trying to reduce bullying in many places for a very long time and never been successful in eliminating it, but we have a responsibility to be better at it and do our very best to eliminate it, and that will be our target,” he said.

That means taking the review committee’s report and recommendations seriously in developing a comprehensive strategy and working with those on all sides of the issue — the bullied and the bullies — in getting them the help they need. 

“And we’ll be better at this and we’ll be a leader in this realm and get through,” said McKinnon. “This is one part of the great things that go on here and everyone is committed to making it better.”

It’s a long way McKinnon has travelled to take up his new role, from the rural confines of Ontario’s west coast near Lake Huron to the hustle of the big city. Some may see McKinnon making the move from Bruce Grey Catholic District School Board, where he was director of education for the past four years, as a bit of a backward step in his career. Not McKinnon. One of the things that attracted him to St. Michael’s is that it is almost a microcosm of a school system, “a relatively significant and complex and well-orchestrated system of its own.” 

Its storied past, with a 167-year tradition of excellence in learning and formation, also drew him to the position.

“There’s a lot of that piece that certainly was attractive,” he said. “But I’ve been in Catholic education my whole career. I believe in it and certainly this was an opportunity maybe I get to share and utilize some of my experience to help support and move (St. Michael’s) forward in the times they’re dealing with.”

McKinnon’s background in education includes a Bachelor of Physical and Health Education from Queen’s University, a Bachelor of Education from Western University and a Master of Education from Australia’s University of Southern Queensland. He will be the 30th principal in the school’s 167-year history, and the Basilians are pleased with his addition to the community.

“Jamie brings an outstanding background in Catholic education at the high school level along with a passion for developing collaborative contributors in our increasingly connected and global world,” said Fr. Andrew Leung, interim president.

McKinnon looks forward to getting back to the frontline of education. Since 2012 he’s been in the upper echelons of administration in Catholic school boards, first as superintendent of education with the Brant Haldimand Catholic board before moving up to director of education with Bruce Grey. Before that McKinnon was a teacher and athletic director in Waterloo Catholic District School Board schools (1987-2003) before taking on the principal’s role from 2003 to 2012 at two area high schools.

“I’ve always felt being in schools was my favourite place to be,” said McKinnon, not downplaying the executive functions and the influence one can have in those roles. “But the encounters are much more real when the face of the students are right there in front of you.”

It’s not his first experience in a single-sex school. He was educated in North Bay, Ont., at the Resurrectionist Fathers-run Scollard Hall and taught for three years at St. Jerome’s High School in Waterloo before it went co-ed. He doesn’t see any challenges reacquainting himself with an all-boys environment.

“Part of the experience I bring with me is I’ve worked in three different Catholic school boards and now a private Catholic school. Having those experiences has demonstrated to me young people are young people. They face the same societal and growing up challenges everywhere.”

Coming in with a sports background will be helpful for McKinnon, who played football at Queen’s (1982-86) and later coached at Western. He has also coached hockey, basketball and rugby and has taught phys-ed, but he sees St. Michael’s as so much more than just a sports powerhouse.

“St. Mike’s is more than an athletic school,” he said. “Robust programs in the arts, in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), in mentoring, international summer academies and so much more. Tongue in cheek, we’re a long way past the days of Davey Keon.”

Keon is the former Toronto Maple Leaf great and Hockey Hall of Famer who, like dozens of others, sprang from the hockey programs at St. Michael’s into hockey greatness in the NHL.

But McKinnon sees the lessons taught by sport, just like engagement in activities like band, as being part of making St. Michael’s a better, more caring community moving forward, and aligning with the Basilian education motto of “Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge.” These teach teamwork, discipline, problem solving, experiencing the highs of victory and the lows of defeat in learning how to be successful.

“At the end of the day if we can’t take those great lessons and apply them to our everyday lives in demonstrating respect and dignity for the whole human family, then we’ve kind of missed the point,” said McKinnon.

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