Thunderbird House pleas for help ignored, board co-chair says

Mounting debt, crumbling infrastructure and dwindling resources are raising difficult questions and clouding the future of the Circle of Life Thunderbird House — a $2.8-million cultural hub for Winnipeg’s Indigenous community.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/07/2018 (1548 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Mounting debt, crumbling infrastructure and dwindling resources are raising difficult questions and clouding the future of the Circle of Life Thunderbird House — a $2.8-million cultural hub for Winnipeg’s Indigenous community.

What’s entirely clear, however, according to all parties with knowledge of the situation, is things are getting increasingly dire, and the building’s board of directors needs help to keep the doors open.

But there doesn’t appear to be much help on the horizon; no government agencies are responsible for keeping the building afloat.

Richelle Scott, co-chair of Thunderbird House’s board of directors, said the handful of volunteers involved with the building have reached out to all three levels of government.

There has been little, if any, response thus far.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Richelle Scott, co-chair of the Circle of Life Thunderbird House Board of Directors in Winnipeg says the cultural hub for Winnipeg’s Indigenous community is in dire need of repair.

“There’s been a lot of telephone tag. I don’t even want to name names, but we’ve been trying to kick down doors, and unfortunately we’re not getting a response much of the time. Often (representatives) have a certain constituency that they focus on and Indigenous peoples often aren’t it,” Scott said.

The deteriorating state of the building — located on north Main Street, a stone’s throw from the Salvation Army and Main Street Project — is clear to any motorist driving past on any given day: copper panelling is dislodged and dangling from the roof and the property is littered with debris.

The “No Loitering” signs hanging from the doors do little to deter those who set up shop on the grounds, and sections of the walls and pavement have been tagged with graffiti. Perhaps most concerning of all, there’s a hole in the roof, which leaks water into the building and mould is beginning to grow.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Examples of the water damage in the men's washroom area at the Thunderbird House.

In a written statement provided to the Free Press, a city spokesman made clear the municipal government had “no responsibility toward the building,” adding while there are “esthetic issues to be addressed, there has not been any safety concerns identified.”

Scott said she disagrees with the city’s assessment, pointing to the large copper panels peeled away by high winds now hanging from the roof.

“As of right now there are copper shingles hanging there and that is a safety concern. Some have already fallen off and were stolen. We often have people sleeping around the building and if one fell and hit them we could be liable,” she said.

Questions of who might step forward and what would be done to save the structure are not being answered.

Robert Falcon-Ouellette, MP for Winnipeg Centre, said when he was first elected as the area’s federal representative in October 2015 he reached out to Thunderbird House to get involved but didn’t hear back from the board.

Regardless, he said he’s open to getting involved now, adding he could look into trying to help expedite the board’s pending request for charitable tax status (revoked in 2015 due to inadequate paperwork).

“We always remain hopeful. We’re chipping away at some of the debt. It’s been a struggle for a number of years now, but we’ve managed to keep the doors open. I think for a while people were running under the assumption that we make lots of money and have lots of funding, which isn’t the case”
– Richelle Scott, co-chair of Thunderbird House’s board of directors

“I wanted to engage with the Thunderbird House when I was first elected. No one was interested. I tried to use the space to hold events, but they weren’t interested in having me use that space for whatever reason,” Falcon-Ouellette said Tuesday.

“I extended my hand and tried to do so. If they want help now, I’m always open to working with them. It’s a healing space in downtown Winnipeg that’s really needed. If a community group wants to meet with me, I’ve never turned anybody down.”

Scott said she recalls that Falcon-Oullette held an event at facility around the time he was elected MP, so she isn’t “sure what he’s talking about,” when he said he didn’t hear back from them. In addition, she pointed out the building is being run by a handful of burned-out volunteers, and suggested Falcon-Oullette could take a more proactive approach.

“He can have his assistants reach out to us, it’s a two-way street. The reality is he’s known the Thunderbird House has been struggling for a number of years,” she said.

Despite the desperate situation, Scott made clear she’s hopeful things will improve. What is needed now is to have more people step forward to volunteer around the building or sit on the board, she said.

“We always remain hopeful. We’re chipping away at some of the debt. It’s been a struggle for a number of years now, but we’ve managed to keep the doors open. I think for a while people were running under the assumption that we make lots of money and have lots of funding, which isn’t the case,” Scott said. “I think in the past there maybe wasn’t as much transparency because some of the people involved were ashamed (of the financial situation), given the stereotype of Indigenous people not being so good with money. But now we’re trying to be open and transparent about where things are at.”

Free Press requests for comment from Manitoba’s Indigenous & Northern Relations Minister Eileen Clarke and federal Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott were not returned.

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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Updated on Wednesday, July 11, 2018 7:13 AM CDT: Typos fixed.

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