Rec centres fight to level playing field

Fewer volunteers, climate change, inflation affect programming around city


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Barry Chambers has done just about every job at Sturgeon Heights Community Centre for more than two decades.

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Barry Chambers has done just about every job at Sturgeon Heights Community Centre for more than two decades.

As facility manager, he cuts the grass in summer and shovels the snow in winter. He’s responsible for getting the centre’s two rinks ready to go every hockey season. It keeps him on his toes.

“If I don’t do it, nobody’s gonna do it,” he jokes.


While Sturgeon Heights Community Centre’s hockey tournaments have continued, recent warmer winters have caused the cancellation of other hockey tournaments that were once a staple city-wide.

As another season comes to an end, he looks back on some of the hurdles community centres in Winnipeg have had to jump in recent years.

In some ways, it’s a new world for Chambers and the people that keep the city’s 63 community centres alive. While Sturgeon Heights’ hockey tournaments have continued, recent warmer winters have caused the cancellation of other hockey tournaments that were once a staple city-wide. Post-pandemic staffing issues and volunteer shortages have put a dent into community centre programs.

“Is it global warming? Who knows, but the ice times are totally changing,” Chambers told the Free Press.

“I used to have the ice in (by) the end of November. I’m pushing it (now), I’m doing everything I can to get the ice in by Christmas time.”

Even pre-COVID, Chambers said the number of volunteers at community centres was slipping. Now, it’s to the point where the 20 centres that are run solely by volunteers are struggling to have any programming.

“They can’t run themselves. The volunteer bases have fallen right out,” he said.

That has changed the way Chambers and other community centre staff do their jobs. COVID-related supply chain slowdowns resulted in a three-month wait for important machinery needed by the centre. Smaller community centres that don’t have a stable of volunteers are more likely to be targeted by vandals and thieves, Chambers said.

The number of volunteers crashed when the pandemic hit to 5,676 in 2020 from 14,314 in 2018.

When centres reopened, volunteers didn’t rush back, said Lora Meseman, executive director of the General Council of Winnipeg Community Centres.

“We get funding through the city, and then we help (centres) apply for programming grants. The number of community centres applying for the grants is starting to increase, but it still isn’t where it was prior to the pandemic,” she said. “They’re still trying to find ways to bring more programming back to the centres, and to have people feel comfortable coming back.”

In 2022, the number of volunteers rebounded to 7,805 — still a far cry from the 2018 level.

Meseman said there has to be a shift in how the centres operate. Fifty years ago, they could rely on the entire family being involved. Parents were part of the planning process and often helped out by running the canteen, for example.

That model has gone by the wayside as more families have both parents working full time and children are more likely to go to programs outside their own neighbourhood. For the 43 community centres that do have paid staff, keeping them has become increasingly difficult as the cost of living increases and centres can’t offer competitive pay.

“The expectation is that each community centre receives a (city) grant to help operate the facility because they’re owned by the city,” she said. “That funding is intended to keep the lights on, the water running, first-line maintenance like general repairs, replacement of boards, etc. But staffing doesn’t fall into that formula.”


Barry Chambers, a volunteer at Sturgeon Community Centre, inspects the boards covering the players benches. The centre has been boarding up the benches and only taking them down just before scheduled games as a way to reduce excessive maintenance costs.

Community centres receive a yearly operating grant based on a formula that takes square footage, population and outdoor hockey rinks into account. In 2022, $6.45 million was handed out. A multitude of grants is available to centres for upgrades, retrofits and renovations.

The general council is reviewing its 20-year plan to determine how centres can better meet the needs of the changing demographics of the city.

Meseman points to the influx of newcomers as an example. The review will incorporate the city’s 2020 newcomer welcome and inclusion into its strategy on how to attract more users.

“I don’t see (the changes) as hurdles. I think I see them as necessary because the reality is our city is changing,” she said.

“If we don’t examine our policies and the logic behind the new policies, we miss the opportunity to adjust to what our community needs.”

The city’s community services committee will scrutinize the review once it has been completed.

“We need to fund them better… and then each community centre will determine how they want to allocate those resources,” said Coun. John Orlikow (River Heights-Fort Garry), the chair of the committee.

Coun. Sherri Rollins, former committee chair, was responsible for an amendment to have the strategy give greater focus to keeping the volunteer base healthy and more reflective of the diversity of individual neighbourhoods.

“I’ve seen many reports on volunteers and diminishing volunteers that I just think got it wrong. They’re speaking about symptoms, but they got the analysis wrong,” she said.

“Some of the analysis they were missing was that people aren’t recognizing the volunteers, particularly in the Black, brown, Indigenous community, East Asian community.”

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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