MP criticizes funding for faith-based group

A Winnipeg MP is criticizing a city committee for approving millions of dollars to help a faith-based group build a recreation centre.

A Winnipeg MP is criticizing a city committee for approving millions of dollars to help a faith-based group build a recreation centre.

Pat Martin, the NDP Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre, said the non-profit group behind the project, Youth for Christ, has fundamentalist Christian views and a mandate to convert youth.

That makes them unsuitable to receive taxpayers' money, he said.

"What if this group was called Youth for Allah?" Martin said. "I wonder if the money would be contributed then."

On Wednesday, the city's Executive Policy Committee voted to contribute $2.5 million toward the project, as well as contribute the land at Main Street and Higgins Avenue.

The EPC has passed on its recommendation to city council for a final vote on the matter next week.

"On behalf of all the other organizations that are providing darn good service to kids and who have applied for money and been turned down, I resent this process and I hope city council denies this loan because I don't think its the best bang for our buck," Martin said.

Giving that kind of funding without opening up to other proposals is undemocratic, Martin said.

"I know organizations that have been turned down for a lousy $20,000 or $50,000 to keep very worthy projects going — outreach to inner city youth," he said.

"Don't give all our money into this one project without giving other agencies the opportunity to compete on it."

Mayor confused by comments

Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz said Thursday that he is confused and surprised by Martin's comments.

"My understanding is the majority of our youth who attend those facilities are not Christian — anybody can go there. And it appears they're not trying to do at all what Pat Martin says."

Katz said the centre would be a boon to an area that's surrounded by neighbourhoods many of the city's most disadvantaged youth call home.

Youth for Christ, which already operates more than a dozen small recreation centres in the city, is hoping to build an $11-million, non-denominational facility at the site.

John Courtney, executive director of Youth for Christ, said the facility would house an indoor skateboarding park as well as a performance-art studio and job-training centre.

The facility would be open to all Winnipeg youth, not just those of the Christian faith, he said.

The federal government has already agreed to provide $3 million to the project and Youth for Christ is preparing to launch a fundraising campaign for the rest of the money, Courtney said.

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

"It's a great organization. I am proud to support it I have no hesitation to support it and I am glad the government has no hesitation to support it," he said.

The federal government carefully scrutinized the project before agreeing to provide the funding, which is contingent on Winnipeg city council voting to approve its share, Toews said.

He also noted that in considering the funding, the federal government discussed the matter with the Manitoba NDP government and Opposition Progressive Conservative Party. There has been strong support at all levels, yet Martin has been flatly opposed since Day 1, Toews said.

"We left the issue and went to his colleagues in the provincial government and the provincial opposition, who gave us letters of support. Pat Martin, I don't know what his problem is," he said.

The provincial government has not said whether it also intends to provide any funding.

Councillors also concerned

Martin isn't the only one who has reservations about the Youth for Christ centre.

If the city wants such a facility, it should fund and operate it as a public-run facility, said Coun. Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre).

"I don't think we should be having a religious organization coming up with the recreational facility that the city should have. We should be doing it," he said.

The city would have no control over what went on in a facility run by a private group, Smith added, saying he will vote against the plan at the council meeting.

"I think we want to have recreational facilities open to all and we want to be able to monitor it and know what's happening."

Coun. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) also added her voice to those questioning the city's involvement.

"It's a sensitive issue because you're talking about people's belief systems, and obviously you know its very touchy and I'm trying to be sensitive to that," Gerbasi said.

"But we have a public recreational system and there's got to be a trade off when we're ... spending these kind of huge dollars on essentially a private evangelical organization as opposed to our public community centres," she added.

Lack of information

Gerbasi and fellow Coun. Dan Vandal have also expressed concern about the lack of information being provided on the project, which they believe is getting rushed through council.

"This money is all going into capital to build this massive new facility that has not been scrutinized," Gerbasi said.

"There was a one page piece of paper with a motion on it that was walked onto an agenda [Wednesday] and the decision has to be made next week by council with virtually no information provide to members of council who have to make this decision.

"That's not a way to run a city."

Kemlin Nembhard executive director of the Daniel McIntyre-St. Matthews Community Association, is also angry about the deal being given Youth for Christ.

She runs youth programs in the community on a shoestring budget and was stunned when she heard the news.

"Given that we're constantly told that the city has no money, [that] they're constantly amalgamating and closing centers, and then they all of a sudden turn around and find $2.6 million to give to a group to run programming that won't be available to a broad range of youth?"