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A place for the people

The U of W has expanded dramatically, but outgoing president Axworthy says increasing access has been the greater legacy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/6/2014 (1136 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It was only a decade ago the University of Winnipeg was one city block with a gym across the street, a seemingly forbidden fortress that fenced off its front doors and at night pulled up the drawbridge over the moat.

Then Lloyd Axworthy walked into the president's office.

Dr. Lloyd Axworthy and project manager Linda Palmer on a tour of the University of Winnipeg RecPlex which is still under construction.


Dr. Lloyd Axworthy and project manager Linda Palmer on a tour of the University of Winnipeg RecPlex which is still under construction.

Ten years later, the campus has a theatre on Colony Street, the Buhler Centre across Portage Avenue where once stood an army surplus store, mixed housing being built south of Portage, student life in the former dumpy old bus depot, an indoor soccer complex about to open, a pedestrian mall on Spence Street and, two blocks west, a glittering science complex.

Lots of concrete, lots of monuments and incredible new amounts of square footage.

But in the face of retirement, Axworthy wants to talk about people.

Increased enrolment breaking the 10,000-student barrier, sure, but Axworthy primarily feels proud of the students who might otherwise have never dreamed of going to university and of the people living in the neighbourhood who had never set foot on a university campus and saw it as a place they didn't belong.

That's why Axworthy thinks it's such a big deal he's signed a charter with more than 20 community groups to give them first dibs on the best one-third of the time the new RecPlex indoor soccer and recreation facility will operate. The university gets one-third, and the rest goes to people and groups who can afford to pay to rent it.

"I just couldn't believe such a facility would go into my neighbourhood and they were talking about the community -- it was surreal," marvelled Chino Argueta, director of the Youth Agencies Alliance. "I'm really looking forward to the laughter and the smiles of the kids and families bringing it to life. That's community development at its best."

Argueta said the community will have the facility from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays and for significant periods of Saturday and Sunday still being worked out, with the U of W arranging for equipment donations -- sports galore, both games and skills development, dance, drumming -- the gamut of experiences.

"It's not a barrier, it's not an unknown, it's a place where they're welcome," Argueta said. "It's a place where they might see themselves when they finish high school. When they're 18, it's, 'I know the U of W, I've been there many times,' " he said.

Axworthy said residents would ask him a decade ago, "Why do we get checked by security? Why do you have a fence around your front yard?"

There really was "a sense you had to pull up the moat at night. People don't talk about it anymore, but we had to work hard."

It thrilled Axworthy the Opportunity Fund has named a bursary to honour him and his wife, Denise Ommanney -- the fund that enables inner-city young people as early as Grade 4 to earn scholarship money through academic achievement and community work, which has opened up the U of W to 1,500 students and counting.

"It's had a huge impact on the university by opening the doors to far greater diversity," Axworthy said. "The demographic changes going on in the city were most visible right here," with a downtown alive with aboriginal people and new Canadians from places such as Sudan and Somalia.

But not within the forbidden fortress.

"It wasn't being reflected at the university when I arrived," Axworthy said. "We established a task force on access."

With every public institution in sight running capital fundraising campaigns, the U of W had never done so: "I couldn't quite figure out why."

Axworthy brought in younger aboriginal staff such as Jennifer Rattray, now the associate vice-president of indigenous, government and community affairs, and now-Minister of Child and Youth Opportunities Kevin Chief "to develop the notion of early education" and battle the dropout plague in the inner city.

-- -- --

His big regret is never getting all or part of the Bay. It was there for the taking for $1, but renovations would have run $9 million and ongoing operations would have been onerous.

"We just couldn't pull it off -- there was a case we couldn't get the partnership we needed," Axworthy said. "We don't have a real high-powered design centre like the Parsons Centre in New York City. I thought the Bay would have been ideal."

Axworthy also dreamed of an above-ground walkway connecting the campus to the rest of downtown -- $4 million to the Investors Group building across Colony, $8 million to the Bay/Portage Place.

"If you could provide a venue of easy access over the Berlin Wall of six lanes of traffic... it would have a big economic impact, a social and cultural one."

Axworthy would have liked to go even further afield and tie the Sherbrook Pool by a short green path into the Duckworth Centre and RecPlex, but, "It comes down to the land costs."

-- -- --

Public bodies talk transparency all the time -- Axworthy walks the walk.

People out on the street will be able to see what's going on inside the new RecPlex. Be it indoor soccer, ultimate Frisbee, flag football, baseball practice, it will all be visible through triple-pane, ball-resistant windows along the street.

"Jennifer (Rattray) and I knocked on the doors along here. People said, 'We need a place to gather, a place where the neighbourhood can meet, or bring our kids'," said Axworthy.

The $40-million project officially opens June 17 and will host activities come the fall.

It's 52,000 square feet, linked at the second level to the Duckworth Centre with three east-to-west indoor soccer pitches opening up into a full field. They're flanked by a 60-metre spring track and jumping pit at ground level. There will also be baseball batting cages.

There are only six dressing rooms, but each player will have a locker, so that six teams who've just come off, or are waiting to go on next, can use the rooms while six others are on the field.

There's a student lounge on the second level that can be transformed into part of the bleachers running along the Spence Street side. At one end will be a wellness centre and some retail and restaurant space.

There are both a community gym with a rock-climbing wall and a Thomas Sill Foundation multipurpose room ventilated to the outside: "We can do powwows and drums and smudges."

Just in case you can write a seven-figure cheque that would clear the bank, the naming rights are still up for grabs.

-- -- --

Turning serious, Axworthy reiterated the U of W is historically underfunded compared to the University of Manitoba and Brandon University. "The granting formula doesn't take into account any growth," he said.

He insisted all these new facilities won't be a burden on the operating budget he leaves his successor -- that budget already has serious pension costs and relies heavily on leaving jobs vacant to balance the books.

But it goes far beyond just money.

"The political system has to catch up with the changes going on in universities and colleges -- it's not the traditional two semesters of 15 weeks. We're becoming the learning centre for a wide variety of people."

Ontario and B.C. are leading the way in trying to assign each school a specialty to teach, a move Axworthy considers a major blunder: "It's something policy-makers have to resist. There are pressures to try to homogenize the system -- what makes it thrive is competition, diversity."

The U of W needs to invest in online learning, as should every school in Manitoba, he said. "We're under-universitied in Manitoba, if that's even a word.

"If I can leave one lasting contribution, it's to begin a process where that can be resolved."

-- -- --

Axworthy at 74 isn't taking on another full-time job anywhere, but he's on the board of Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), the Aspen commission on food security, the UN committee on the world court and is involved in Jim Carr's campaign for a federal LIberal nomination in Winnipeg South Centre.

"Strangely enough, all the years in politics I dealt with NGOs, but I never belonged to one," Axworthy said.

His advice to his yet-to-be-revealed successor?

That the U of W should be fundraising for access, not monuments.


Read more by Nick Martin.


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