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The sky is not falling

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It was clear from Wednesday's council meeting that many aboriginal groups and social agencies feel the Christian religion is not fit -- morally, culturally or spiritually -- to provide leadership or guidance to native children. It's also evident that the process surrounding a controversial funding request by Youth for Christ is deeply resented by community organizations that felt they did not get an equal shot.

Everyone should step back and take a deep breath. The sky is not falling, no one's children are in peril and the process was the only one available under all the circumstances. In the end, council could have defeated the plan and everyone might then have said that the process worked. Fortunately, a majority of councillors saw great merit in the ambitious goals of Youth for Christ, which intends to erect an $11.6-million building for young people on an empty lot at Higgins Avenue and Main Street.

Youth for Christ developed its plans last year when it applied for funding under the federal infrastructure plan. The terms required the evangelical Christian group to find another funding partner. Provincial funding was unavailable, so the group turned to the University of Winnipeg, but the talks broke down over the university's insistence that it own the project, with Youth for Christ serving as an operating partner.

CentreVenture Development Corp. subsequently agreed to provide funding -- subject to civic approval -- and land. The agreement was signed the day before the federal deadline expired. A couple of weeks later, the plan was disclosed and all hell broke loose. It wasn't a great process for many reasons, but it wasn't a conspiracy by the city, either.

Groups that claim they would have liked millions of dollars in funding, too, are being petty and small-minded. The controversy is not about community club funding in general, but about a specific plan for a parcel of land that has not lent itself easily to development. Everyone was free to bid for the same property but they did not. Nor did they have the roughly $5 million in cash that Youth for Christ is prepared to invest.

Finally, there is the question of Christianity itself and Youth for Christ's belief that it has a duty to spread the good word. Many speakers told council the goals of Youth for Christ are too similar to the role religion played in the forced assimilation of native children through the residential school system. The churches, one speaker said, "are still looking for the souls of our children."

These concerns are both an exaggeration and misrepresentation of the plan for Main and Higgins. All programs are voluntary, parental approval is needed and Christian messages are largely muted, although religion-based counselling and instruction are available for those who are interested.

Moreover, aboriginal people will be consulted in the development of programs to ensure that everything is culturally sensitive and appropriate. The new facility will be perfectly complemented by several adjacent aboriginal institutions.

The work of Youth for Christ is not really about theology or religion. It's about helping young people to grow up to be healthy and happy. That's their goal and it should be ours, too.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2010 A10

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