The squabble over public funding for a Christian youth centre in downtown Winnipeg ascended to a higher plane on Thursday, as Canada's Public Safety minister accused a Winnipeg MP of preferring recruitment by gangs to programming by a religious group.
The Conservative government in Ottawa and Winnipeg's city council are poised to help non-profit Youth For Christ build an $11.7-million, 50,000-square-foot youth centre at the northwest corner of Higgins Avenue and Main Street.
Ottawa will contribute $3.2 million, if city council votes in favour of a $3.4-million contribution of its own toward the project, which will include a gym, skate park, job training centre and other facilities. The Selinger provincial government, which is not funding the project, has written a letter of support for the centre, which would rise on an empty lot.
Within hours of the project's public announcement on Wednesday, Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin harshly criticized both Ottawa and Winnipeg for giving money to what he described as a fundamentalist Christian organization that's trying to convert impressionable youths.
On Thursday, senior Manitoba MP Vic Toews, who now holds the public safety portfolio in the Harper cabinet, suggested Martin has his priorities mixed up.
"It appears to me Pat Martin doesn't have a problem with allowing gangs to recruit in his riding, but when it comes to Youth For Christ offering programs, he suddenly has a problem with it," Toews said.
The project started as a collaboration between Youth For Christ and the University of Winnipeg, which wanted to build the centre on its campus, Toews said.
Toews said when Youth For Christ's board members wanted to own the building -- and the province could not find the money -- Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz stepped in and worked out a deal. It involves having downtown development agency CentreVenture loan the organization $2.6 million and having Winnipeg cover that cost, with interest, in 15 instalments of $225,000 over the next 15 years.
That plan, which faces a council vote on Feb. 24, is being lambasted by two opposition councillors and MP Martin, who claim it was rushed through city hall, contravenes Winnipeg's recreation policy and effectively shuts out other inner-city organizations.
"Councillors received one page of information about this. It was walked onto (executive policy committee) a week before we have to vote on this. It didn't go through the proper process," said Gerbasi, who shares Martin's concerns about the evangelistic aims of Youth For Christ.
"Part of their purpose is to bring in people of a certain faith. That's not how the YMCA operates, that's not how the Salvation Army operates and that's certainly not how our public community centres operate. So we're taking $6.6 million away from organizations who didn't get a chance to bid on this," she said.
Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt said it's unfair to give millions to Youth For Christ without even a report from city staff, when the city makes dozens of small community organizations jump through procedural hoops to obtain small amounts of public funding.
Gerbasi and Martin are calling for the city to issue a formal request for proposals to allow other organizations a shot at the money, as well as the land at Higgins and Main.
"This kind of 'good old boy' backroom dealing has become a hallmark of this administration and city council should put its foot down once and for all," Martin said. "You don't just hand over all the money earmarked for inner-city recreation to one well-connected organization, with no consultation, no competition and no due process."
CentreVenture CEO Ross McGowan, however, said Youth For Christ made a successful application for money through a federal infrastructure-stimulus program, which means the project was vetted by senior officials in Ottawa.
"Youth For Christ had the foresight to make an application, like any other group could have," he said, adding there is no requirement for the city to issue requests for proposals for land CentreVenture owns.
Toews said Youth For Christ's evangelism was irrelevant to the funding process, although CBC reports one of the group's directors contributed to his political campaign.
All levels of government fund faith-based organizations, he added, joining McGowan and Katz in criticizing Martin for calling Youth For Christ a fundamentalist organization.
"I'm Jewish and I think this is a great project," said Katz, predicting Martin may recant after "a few nights" sleep.
John Courtney, the organization's executive director for Manitoba, said he has no experience with public controversy.
"What we do, we do rather quietly. We're not highly visible," he said. "We haven't done a good job of telling our story."
According to the Brandon Sun, Youth For Christ was embroiled in controversy in 2005 when some members of Brandon's city council opposed the organization's request for a homeless-shelter permit. That permit was approved after several heated public meetings that saw Youth For Christ supporters travel in from other Manitoba communities.
Youth For Christ has chapters in every Canadian province. According to the organization's 2008 annual report, it reported revenues of $24.5 million across Canada -- and also kept statistics on evangelism efforts.
Roughly one in 100 youths contacted by the organization -- 17,010 out of 154,192 -- "responded to the opportunity to become a Christian," said the report, which identified "the aboriginal youth community" as a "prime area for development."