Wanted: Roofer with copper expertise to help patch up Thunderbird House

Thunderbird House is badly in need of roof repairs — and an expert copper contractor with the knowledge and experience to do it.

Indigenous cultural centre pays off a big debt, but needs rare roofer to help patch hole at a discount

Thunderbird House is badly in need of roof repairs — and an expert copper contractor with the knowledge and experience to do it. (Frances Koncan)

An Indigenous cultural centre in Winnipeg is on the hunt for an expert copper worker to help with much-needed roof repairs that were put on the back burner several years ago amid financial struggles. 

Mounting debt, the loss of its charitable status and a previous lien on the building have kept board members at Thunderbird House so busy in recent years that they haven't been able to fix a roof hole in the iconic Main Street building.

Board co-chair Richelle Scott said now that the board is working to get the centre's financial situation under control, board members are looking for a contractor with a specialty in working on copper roofs.

"My understanding is that there's not many people in this city that can do this job," she said.

The roof quality at Thunderbird House worsened last week when a storm that blew through Winnipeg tore big chunks off parts of the roof, says board co-chair Richelle Scott. (Submitted by Richelle Scott)

The building is an important urban hub for Indigenous cultural programming for those who can't afford to get out of the city to attend ceremonies, sweat lodges and other traditional gatherings.

"This is the focal point to where we can help those elders and the people in our community come together to have that knowledge," said Scott. "It represents Indigenous culture here in Winnipeg."

The roof quality worsened last week when a storm that blew through Winnipeg tore big chunks off parts of the roof, said Scott.

Thunderbird House auctioned off Indigenous art in December 2016 in hopes of raising funds for the roof fixes, but Scott predicts the project will be very expensive, so she is hoping to find a contractor who will do the job at a discounted rate.

Debt woes

Scott took over about 2½ years ago and says the current board is focused on financial transparency.

"We're trying to be open and honest about everything, about our debts. We're not ashamed because they weren't from us," she said.

She attributes the financial woes at Thunderbird House to hiring "untrustworthy people" and a failure on the part of past board members to hold those staff accountable.

"I think there was a lot of mismanagement. Unfortunately we can't always trust the people that we hire," she said.

"When I first started on the board I was asking some pretty tricky and tough questions, and I would actually leave meetings with my head spinning, because they never really answered what I was asking.

"I think I lasted about three meetings before I finally got a little bit cranky and put my foot down."

Richelle Scott says the board is also working to regain charitable status for Thunderbird House. (Bryce Hoye/CBC)

Payroll issues, bookkeeping problems and payments for services that may not have even been completed eventually led to the dismissal of an executive director, she said.

That executive director arranged a loan of about $40,000 for the installation of an expensive air conditioning system that didn't need to be installed, said Scott.

When they failed to pay back the loan in time, Scott says Thunderbird House was sued and a lien was placed on the building.

'We're very excited'

Scott says Thunderbird House still has a lot of debt and she and others are working hard to correct that, but that $40,000 loan was recently repaid. She expects the lien to be removed as early as next week.

"We're very excited," she said.

In addition to attracting a copper worker to fix the roof, the board is also working to regain charitable status for Thunderbird House.

It took about two years of paperwork and a "constant barrage of jumping through hoops" with lawyers for the board to refile an application for charitable status last month, said Scott.

She expects Thunderbird House will learn in eight to 10 months whether its application has been approved.

Right now Thunderbird House is largely volunteer-run, but were it to regain charitable status and the funds that come with that, Scott says the organization would be able to hire more staff.

"To have skilled people that can write grants and focus on the things that we need to focus on, then we won't be just surviving, we'll be able to thrive and provide programming again," she said.

While they wait to hear back about the application, Thunderbird House will continue to seek advice for how to fix its roof and hopes that rare copper expert emerges to help them with repairs, said Scott.

With files from Kim Kaschor and Caroline Barghout