Christian youth centre gets public funding

Winnipeg city councillors have voted in favour of loaning a faith-based group $2.5 million to build a recreation centre in the inner city.

Proposed youth centre likened to residential school

Winnipeg city councillors have voted in favour of loaning a faith-based group $2.5 million to build a recreation centre in the inner city.

The controversial plan passed by a vote of 10-4 after an extremely contentious day at city hall where councillors were confronted by the spectre of Indian residential schools.

A full house of 200 people packed the gallery of the council chambers while councillors debated the controversial proposal.

How they voted:

For Mayor Sam Katz, and councillors Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan), Bill Clement (Charleswood), Scott Fielding (Brooklands), Grant Nordman (St. Charles), Mike Pagtakhan (Point Douglas), Gord Steeves (St. Vital), Justin Swandel (St. Norbert), Lillian Thomas (Elmwood-East Kildonan), and Harry Lazarenko (Mynarski).

Against Councillors Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry), John Orlikow (River Heights-Fort Garry), Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre), and Russ Wyatt (Transcona).

Coun. Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) left the meeting prior to the vote, and Coun. Mike O'Shaughnessy (Old Kildonan) was absent.

The Christian youth centre in a primarily aboriginal neighbourhood stirs up thoughts of historical assimilation, some First Nations leaders told councillors.

Nahanni Fontaine, director of justice for the Southern Chiefs Organization, an advocacy group for First Nations people in southern Manitoba, said giving public money to the project would be like contributing to the contemporary version of residential schools under the guise of helping youth.

"[We] saw religion used as an abusive and violating mechanism in which to assimilate aboriginal children into Euro-Canadian mainstream," she said.

"Aboriginal people were assured that these sort of infringing practices and strategic policies would never occur again."

Approving this proposal would just be sanctifying a "more contemporary form of the residential school experience," Fontaine said.

"They are looking for the souls of our children," Kathy Mallet, an aboriginal community education activist, told council.

Damon Johnston, head of the Aboriginal Centre of Winnipeg, vowed the centre would be relentlessly picketed if it goes ahead.

"This is not 1876. You will not get away with this, let me assure you," he said, eliciting applause.

Motion approved by committee

The proposed youth centre has come under fire since the city's executive policy committee (EPC) approved a motion last week to contribute the money as well as land at Main Street and Higgins Avenue for the project.

The committee's recommendation was passed on to council, which had the final vote.

The controversy heightened when NDP MP Pat Martin, who said the non-profit group behind the project, Youth for Christ, has fundamentalist Christian views and a mandate to convert youth.

That mandate makes the group unsuitable to receive taxpayers' money, Martin said a day after the EPC decision. He represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre, where the facility would be located.

Can't help but think of schools

Tammy Christensen, executive director of the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre in Winnipeg, which provides recreational opportunities for inner city aboriginal kids, said she can't help but think of residential schools.

When it comes to government giving money to outside agencies eyeing services to First Nations people, it's an inevitable comparison, she told CBC News.

"We've felt very much that we've completely been left out of this process and yet, these are our kids that they're talking about for this centre."

Christensen, who addressed council, also noted her group has been turned down numerous times for funds from the city.

Councillors began hearing from delegates on the controversial issue at 9:30 a.m. and were still discussing the proposal at 3 p.m.

Centre would benefit area: mayor

Mayor Sam Katz has said the proposed facility would be a boon to an area of the city that is surrounded by neighbourhoods that are home to many of the city's most disadvantaged youth.

John Courtney, executive director of Youth for Christ, said the 50,000-square-foot, non-denominational facility would be open to all Winnipeg youth. It would house an indoor skateboarding park as well as a performance-art studio and job-training centre, he said.

"Proselytizing is one of those words that's attached to the radical side of religion," Courtney told council on Wednesday.

"Do we think it's a good thing for any young person to embrace the Christian faith? Of course we do. Do we reject any services from kids that don't want to take that journey? Absolutely not."

The $11-million facility has already received support from the federal government, which has agreed to provide $3 million.

Youth for Christ has already raised about $1 million in private funds and is about to launch a campaign to raise $4 million more, Courtney said.

Manitoba Conservative MP Vic Toews has lauded the project and the group.

Ron Evans, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, also believes the facility will benefit the area.

"This is an opportunity for them to have a facility that they can utilize and start engaging in positive activities. We welcome that," he said earlier this week.