University of Manitoba Northern Social Work Program director stepping down after 21 years

For over two decades Colin Bonnycastle has been a staple of the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Social Work here in Thompson.

Since 1998 he’s served as the director of the school’s Northern Social Work Program (NSWP), which is designed to educate and train mature students in a local setting. 

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As an academic, Bonnycastle also hasn’t shied away from teaching or conducting his own research into topics like family violence and homelessness.

However, at the end of May, the 65-year-old will be stepping away from his position at the U of M and moving to Winnipeg to officially begin his retirement.

In a conversation with the Thompson Citizen earlier this month, Bonnycastle said he felt like it was the right time to make this move, given his age and his current living situation. 

“My partner Marleny got transferred to Winnipeg three years ago, so we’ve been living together-apart,” he said. “And so I’m looking forward to moving to Winnipeg to be with her full-time.”

Bonnycastle admitted that this change in scenery will definitely take some getting used to, since he’s been doing research and living in Canada’s North for half his life.

Before arriving in Thompson, the NSWP director worked in the Northwest Territories for many years following his completion of a master’s in social work at the University of Regina in 1994.

Outside of his role at the U of M, Bonnycastle became involved with the community at large by working directly with groups like the Thompson Crisis Centre and Men Are Part of the Solution, which gave him considerable insight into to the best way to approach issues like homelessness.  

“I’ve learned a lot just from sitting and talking with them over the years, some of the struggles that they’ve had,” he said. “I’m a strong believer that we should work more towards prevention, and certainly areas like housing are a key part of that.”

Bonnycastle went on to say that the most important pieces of research he’s done at the U of M are the Point-In-Time (PIT) Counts that aim to break down Thompson’s homeless population in terms of categories like age, sex and ethnicity.

While these studies reinforce what a lot of people already know about the local homeless −like how the majority of them are over 40, male and Indigenous −Bonnycastle said the PIT Counts have also lead to a lot of unexpected results.

“There was an initial belief in the community that a lot of the homeless were just temporarily here, that they came and they got stuck here and so the answer was just to get them a ticket and a bus ride home,” he said. “We consistently found that the vast majority of them have been here for a long time … so it’s not like they have a home somewhere else. Thompson has been their home for many, many years.”

In terms of the NSWP, Bonnycastle said this program has also evolved throughout his time as director, with increased involvement from surrounding communities and other schools like the University College of the North.

Moving forward, the retiring academic said his colleague Greg Fidler is more than capable of filling his shoes as the head of this program, having served at the Faculty of Social Work for roughly the same length of time.

Otherwise, Bonnycastle said he’ll try to maintain his connection to the Faculty of Social Work through continuing his research and taking the odd teaching job in Winnipeg, although he admits it won’t be the same.

“I’ve never lived in a city as big as Winnipeg, so it’s a bit scary for me being a northern boy,” he said. “And also I think I’ll miss Paint Lake. I’ll miss the northern environment, which means I’ll just have to come up and visit.”

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