Cultural Divides? Thunderbird House and Youth For Christ

Today I attended a community meeting at the Indigenous cultural and spiritual centre “Circle of Life, Thunderbird House” located on Main St. and Higgins St., downtown Winnipeg. The purpose of the open-invitation community gathering was to discuss a plan forward as the Thunderbird house, built in 2000, has had its federal funding cut, leaving it with a looming mortgage and no core funding. After receiving initial funding for the building, Thunderbird house has operated via piece-meal grants that have been implemented on 4-year cycles, which have demanded a primary focus on specific funding objectives – homelessness reduction for instance. At it’s core, however,  the Thunderbird house is, and has always been meant to be, a spiritual and cultural centre for indigenous peoples. It was built on consecrated ground, offers sweat lodges, smudging ceremonies and access to elders. According to the Thunderbird house website, “We offer a Traditional house. Many of our clientele are people that follow or want to follow an Indigenous Traditional path. It is the foundation of Traditional Teachings we want to adhere to.”1

I was struck upon arriving to the Thunderbird house by its proximity to an enormous building directly kitty-corner to it. The big new building is the “Youth For Christ (YFC)” recreation centre built in 2011. It was striking to be in a meeting discussing the fate of an architecturally beautiful building, offering culturally specific programming in a neighbourhood with a high indigenous population that going broke, all the while staring across the street at such a obviously high-end facility. To be honest, I was not entirely surprised. I recalled that a number of acquaintances and friends had mentioned that there had been significant controversy over the large-scale federal and city funding YFC centre. Being in the Thunderbird house this morning, to say the least, grounded this controversy for me.

Without knowing much about the specific history of the YFC centre, it still seemed intuitively strange to me that, in the city with Canada’s largest urban-indigenous community, one heavily impacted by the legacy of the church-run residential schools, for there to be a brand new Christian based centre in such prominent place on North Main Street. The attempted genocide of indigenous peoples operated by destroying culture, spirituality and language – and one of the primary agents of this process were the churches (as was acknowledged, first by the united church in 1998).2

As I have learned, the YFC centre has been some what of a debacle since its abrupt inception sometime around 2010. At that time, federal MP Pat Martin (NDP) 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.”3

Looking at the YFC website, I can see Martin’s point. The stated mission and vision of YFC is,

“To participate in the body of Christ in the responsible evangelism of youth presenting them with the person, work and teaching of Jesus Christ, discipling them and leading them into the local church…To establish culturally relevant outreach programs for teenagers…that will model the love of God and communicate the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.”4

While these principles in and of themselves may not be colonizing and violent, taken in the context of Winnipeg’s north Main Street neighbourhoods they are, at the very least, out of touch. Out of touch, that is, not only with the community, but with the work and teaching of Jesus Christ. How programmatic were Christ’s teachings? How often did they align with positions of status, power and state approval?

Why are these developments in the “post-federal-apology” era, still so thickly laden with the euro-christian trappings that have obviously been major sources of exactly the opposite types of actions as those demonstrated in the gospel of Jesus Christ?  A conception that takes as central the relationship between people and the land – seen from an indigenous, or at least a decolonized perspective – offers a vision that seems much more relevant (not to mention authentic) than the too often regurgitated formulaic renderings of Christian faiths. As Dene Scholar Glen Coulthard suggests, “land” should be thought of not only “in the material sense, but also as a system of reciprocal relations and obligations can teach us about living our lives in relation to one another and the natural world in nondominating and nonexploititative terms.” 5

Accordingly, the Thunderbird house hasn’t positioned itself in opposition to it’s next door neighbours, stating that, “There are very good organizations in the immediate and surrounding area of the House. The foundation of care from those entities is primarily Christianity.” Isn’t the fact that Thunderbird is again on the brink of financial collapse – with only one permanent staff member – seem in many ways more “christ-like” than the comparatively opulent building next door with over 20 staff on their registry?

There has also be recent criticism of YFC emerging from a general perception that, despite all the financial resources allocated to the YFC facility, it has not successfully reached out to the indigenous community. Rather, the fancy climbing wall, skate park and dance studios have drawn in youth from around the city – far more so than those youth from the very neighbourhood it was meant to serve. 6

For the time being, Thunderbird house is optimistic about it’s future and the role it can play as a spiritual and cultural hub in the downtown area. The current financial challenges are difficult, but perhaps they will allow for a truly grassroots movement that is not trapped in the catchments of federal funding. To donate to the Thunderbird houses self-funding campaign, please go here 7.

1.http://thunderbirdhouse.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Letter-To-The-Community.pdf
2.http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/policies/1998/a623
3. http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/youth-centre-sparks-dispute-84764682.html
4. http://yfcwinnipeg.com/who-we-are.html
5. https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/red-skin-white-masks (pp. 13)
6.http://www.cbc.ca/player/Embedded Only/News/Local%20News/Manitoba/Homepage/ID/2458516331/
7. http://www.gofundme.com/ThunderbirdHouse

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