Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thunderclouds over sacred house

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IN 1998, two years before Thunderbird House spread its wings on Main Street, the question was asked: "Where's the business plan that shows how this building will be sustained?"

It was posed by David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Metis Federation, who worried aboriginal people would eventually be blamed for running a non-sustainable building.

The concern went unanswered and the Circle of Life Thunderbird House, one of the city's most distinct buildings, opened at the corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue to great fanfare in 2000 as a symbol of hope and pride for the community's beleaguered urban aboriginals. Its precise function was never entirely clear, but it was to be used for special ceremonies, education and banquets. Above all, it was intended as a spiritual centre, a place where First Nations people could reconnect with their heritage and feel proud about their identity.

Future phases were to include housing, a youth complex and commercial opportunities, but the future never happened.

In fact, not much of anything happened -- it was years before the lot was landscaped -- and the place of hope soon felt the despair of inadequate funding and a non-existent business plan.

In a few years, it was in arrears on its property taxes, and the city was threatening to seize the building in a tax sale, a measure that was avoided when the bill was paid. Government grants, a small endowment and some fees for service kept it afloat, but its doors were frequently locked, even to the tourists who showed up on tours of the city's downtown.

In 2010, the facility decided it needed "a solid and sustainable plan" to fund its operations. Plans were developed for facility rentals, workshops, school programs and other activities, but they were never properly executed.

The new group running Thunderbird House -- it's gone through several boards and ownership structures -- is now talking about being more aggressive in marketing its services, but the facility is broke and it has fallen into disrepair -- some woodwork was even ripped from its walls -- requiring $500,000 in renovations.

It should not be allowed to fail, but nor can it continue in the same chaotic fashion. The city and province should fund a consultant's report to see how it could be feasible under professional management.

No one wants to see a place that was supposed to heal wounds end up as a monument to despair.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2012 A10

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