WINNIPEG - The City of Winnipeg will spend $3.4 million to help build a Christian youth centre at the northwest corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street.
After seven hours of delegations and debate, city council voted 10-4 in favour of spending $225,000 a year for the next 15 years to help non-profit group Youth For Christ build an $11.7 million, 50,000-square-foot "Youth Centre for Excellence" on a vacant lot at the northern edge of downtown.
The move will allow the centre to qualify for $3.2 million in federal funding under an infrastructure-stimulus program. Youth for Christ has also raised $3.1 million in private funds toward its project, which will include a gym, climbing wall, fitness facility, dance studio, classroom and other amenities.
The vote arrived after 19 delegations appeared before council to speak out against the proposal on the basis they did not have access to the funding. Some also said it was inappropriate to fund a Christian group.
Eight delegations spoke in favour of the centre.
John Courtney, Youth For Christ's Winnipeg director, said no youths will be turned away from its programs if they don't choose to take a "faith journey" and assured council no beliefs will be foisted on anyone against their will.
Opponents such as Nahanni Fontaine from the Southern Chiefs' organization compared public funding for the Christian group to the subjugation of First Nations culture by previous Canadian governments.
City council suspended its rules to allow multiple delegations to speakfor and against the proposal. Normally, only two delegations may speak for or against any issue before council.
Council voted unanimously to suspend its rules because the Youth For Christ proposal only appeared at council one week ago, at the conclusion of an executive policy committee meeting.
Couns. Lillian Thomas (Elmwood) and Dan Vandal (St. Boniface) tried to have the vote deferred, but their motion failed 9-6.
When councillors finally debated the gesture - the issue reached the floor at 2:15 p.m. - Vandal argued they didn't have enough information to make a decision.
He questioned why small grants to community organizations are scrutinized heavily while $3.4 million for Youth For Christ did not warrant a council report.
Coun. Bill Clement (Charleswood) countered the project has been vetted by Ottawa and CentreVenture, the city's downtown development agency.
Councillors on both sides of the issue said they regretted some of the language and rhetoric that has been thrown around over the past week.
Within hours of the project's announcement on Feb. 17, Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin called Youth For Christ a fundamentalist organization.
The following day, senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews suggested Martin prefers gang recruitment in his riding to programming by a religious group.
In the end Couns. Russ Wyatt (Transcona), Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge), Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) and John Orlikow (River Heights) voted in opposition.
Vandal had to leave for a flight, while Mike O'Shaughnessy (Old Kildonan) was absent today.