The only way Thunderbird House will keep its doors open is by marketing its services and renting out space to make up for a $230,000 funding shortfall, elders and board members said Monday.
"Unfortunately, we've been told that cultural programming does not fit the current government priority of economic development," said Kevin Hart, Circle of Life Thunderbird House board co-chairman.
The copper-roofed roundhouse at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street is the city's main aboriginal spiritual centre.
It has always scrambled for funding, usually shifting back and forth between federal and provincial governments for grants to keep its doors open. Bridge funding ended in October and as of March, the centre could close if nothing is done.
The global economic crunch and government cutbacks make financial independence its only way forward, board members and elders said after a pipe ceremony.
"We cannot and must not rely on government funding to provide services to our community. Going forward, we are focusing on other methods of funding our programs," Hart said.
In October, the federal government withdrew a commitment for a $230,000-a-year grant that would have kept the doors open. It also would have helped lay the foundation for an elders' college to set professional standards for elders who work in Winnipeg, with a code of ethics and regulations.
Two workers on staff are just catching up on back pay; at one point, the executive director was owed five paycheques. The other worker is still owed one paycheque.
The centre, which opened in 2000, needs an estimated $500,000 of work. That includes minor repairs, such as fixing a rooftop exhaust fan that's stuck open, and major work, such as installation of air conditioning and a security system.
This isn't the first time the centre has dealt with tough financial times. In 2008, Thunderbird House owed $128,000 in property taxes and compound interest dating back to 2005.
If that bill hadn't been paid, the city could have snapped up the Douglas Cardinal-designed structure, thanks to an encumbrance against the land title registered in 2007. At the time, Thunderbird House was embroiled in an ownership dispute that complicated city efforts to collect the taxes.
It is now independent and owned by Circle of Life Thunderbird House, a separate non-profit group that operates the programming at the centre.
"We will more aggressively market aboriginal perception and awareness training to both aboriginal and non-aboriginal organizations, and rental of our space as an event venue," Hart said. With estimates of Winnipeg's aboriginal population ranging from 75,000 to 90,000 people, the need to learn more about aboriginal culture is gaining ground with non-aboriginal corporations.
The centre brings in about $60,000 in venue revenue a year but it has yet to market its cultural programs to schools and other centres. Working out of the centre, a council of 17 elders regularly visit hospitals, prisons and treatment facilities to provide cultural services.
"This isn't just about our aboriginal population. It's how we bring the four races (of people) together. That's the spirituality of this place and this is the only meeting space like this," board member and elder Billie Schibler said.
She said the centre is one of southern Manitoba's Top 3 aboriginal tourist attractions, after the multi-millennia-old petroforms at Whiteshell Provincial Park and the Odena Circle at The Forks.