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MP gets behind Youth for Christ centre

Pat Martin supports project after council approves funding

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Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin is now pledging to help the Christian organization he excoriated last week as a "fundamentalist group" build an $11.7-million youth centre in the coming months.

On Wednesday, city council voted 10-4 to contribute $4.2 million toward the non-profit organization Youth for Christ's $11.7-million plan to build a 50,000-square-foot Youth Centre of Excellence on an empty lot at the northwest corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street.

The council decision arrived after five-and-a-half hours of debate and often emotional presentations from dozens of opponents and proponents of the plan, which was announced by city council's executive policy committee last earlier.

NDP MP Martin condemned public funding for the plan, making now-infamous comments about Youth for Christ's evangelism.

But in the wake of council's decision -- which allows the centre to access $3.2 million in federal infrastructure-stimulus funds -- Martin said he harbours no ill will toward Youth for Christ and wants to help it build a facility that will include a gym, skate park, fitness centre, classroom, climbing wall, dance studio and other amenities.

"Now that it's over, I'm going to do all I can to ensure it's a success," Martin said. "Anything happening in the inner city is better than nothing."

Senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews, who traded barbs with Martin last week, said he was relieved to hear about the detente.

"We need Pat to work with the project proponents and his commitment to make it work is the second best thing I have heard all day -- second to the vote," Toews said via email.

John Courtney, Youth for Christ's Winnipeg director, said he should meet with Martin, as well as representatives from more than a dozen inner-city and aboriginal organizations who objected to the Youth for Christ project.

At city council, opponents such as Nahanni Fontaine from the Southern Chiefs' Organization likened the group's youth centre to Canada's residential schools. But the primary complaint raised by inner-city groups was that they had no access to comparable public funding.

"What caught me off guard was all these people felt like we were coming into their community and taking over the community," Courtney said.

He called the past week "emotionally very heavy" and said he feared the project was one undiplomatic statement away from doom.

Youth for Christ has raised $1 million in private funds to build the centre and must find an additional $4 million, said Courtney, adding shovels could be in the ground as soon as April.

Courtney repeated his pledge that youths of all ethnic and religious backgrounds will be welcome at the centre. He promised his organization does not attempt to coerce youths into becoming Christians.

"You work with teenagers, you find out they have a mind of their own. You can't force them to do anything," he said, adding youths who participate in his organization's programs must sign parental waiver forms.

Youth for Christ still welcomes the prospect of voluntary conversions, he added. Slightly more than 200 of the approximately 4,400 youths his organization contacted last year accepted the opportunity to embark on a "faith journey," he said.

The centre's main goal is providing recreational opportunities, he repeated.

Mayor Sam Katz said Winnipeggers should have no concerns about a faith-based organization delivering this sort of programming.

"A lot of citizens do not believe we should be funding any faith-based organizations. Little do they realize, it happens every day," said Katz, who called Martin's statements about Youth for Christ "unfortunate."

Several city councillors went further and accused the MP of deliberately misrepresenting the situation. St. Norbert Coun. Justin Swandel called on Martin to apologize to Winnipeg's Christian and Islamic communities.

Martin, however, said he had a legitimate point to make about the way some initiatives proceed at city hall.

"The experience was more like a shady ring toss on a carnival midway than a fair process," he quipped.

In the end, four councillors agreed.

Couns. Jenny Gerbasi (Fort Rouge), Russ Wyatt (Transcona), John Orlikow (River Heights) and Harvey Smith (Daniel McIntyre) voted against the Youth for Christ plan.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2010 A4

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