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13 December 2011

Humanists, Skeptics "Attack" Youth for Christ

Cross-posted from the Winnipeg Skeptics blog.

Jeff Olsson and I were interviewed yesterday by Michael Gryboski of the Christian Post (the most Christian of posts) for a piece he was writing on the subject of the Youth for Christ recreational centre that is preparing to open in downtown Winnipeg.

The article, entitled "Humanists, Skeptics Criticize New Youth For Christ Rec Center", has now gone live. This is what Jeff and I had to say:

Youth For Christ will soon be opening up a rec center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has stirred attacks from residents via the Winnipeg Free Press. Complaints ranged from a preference for a secular facility directed towards helping disadvantaged youth to concerns over it being built via government assistance.

"I agree with the numerous criticisms being leveled at Mayor Sam Katz and Youth For Christ," said Jeffrey Olsson of the Humanist Association of Manitoba to CP. "This Youth for Christ center is yet another example of government intrusion into private citizens religious lives because they have no other recreation center to use."

Olsson compared the YFC facility to that of past efforts by Canadian Christian organizations to evangelize aboriginal children, which he said resulted in thousands of disaffected youth.

Meanwhile, Gem Newman of Winnipeg Skeptics said that while he did not oppose YFC establishing their center, he was concerned about the government involvement.

"Instead of providing the youth in the area with a place they can feel comfortable, whatever their religious or philosophical inclination, the mayor has instead effectively given Youth For Christ a megaphone for their religious message," said Newman.

Notwithstanding the fact that the author decided to characterise legitimate criticism as an "attack", I think that the article was fairly balanced; certainly more than I expected. Jeff and I were asked to respond to criticisms levelled against the centre in this Winnipeg Free Press article. Although we were only given a few sentences, I don't think that our positions were misrepresented in any way. All the same, some of our more cogent criticisms were not included in the final article. For that reason, I'll include the text of the interview here.

Do you agree with the concerns and criticisms published in the Winnipeg paper?

Jeff: I agree with the numerous criticisms being leveled at Mayor Sam Katz and Youth For Christ. I will explain below in detail.

Gem: I do. I'm always wary when a sectarian religious organisation is given government funds, because this results in undue entanglement between the religious goals of the organisation and the (presumably) secular goals of the government. It can result in the appearance of government endorsement of the religious or philosophical perspective of the organisation.

Do you know of any connections the rec center has to the state? That is to say, was it built with tax dollars, jointly operated by city council, etc.?

Jeff: The Youth for Christ center was built with federal and city money ... and was partially backed by private donations directly to the religious organization. It is completely controlled by YFC, with no city or federal direction being given for day to day operations.

Gem: To my knowledge, YFC has received [much] of its roughly $13.5 million budget from the government.

During the interview Jeff and I ballparked the amount of government funds that YFC received, but as we were on a very tight schedule I didn't have the opportunity to look it up until afterward. While it's tough to get an exact number, it appears that the centre received $3.2 million in federal funds and between $3.2 and $4.2 million in municipal funds, for a total of $6.2–7.2 million. The total cost of the project has been variously quoted as $9.6 million, $11.7 million, and $13.2 million. (Source, source, source. If any readers have access to more precise information on this subject, feel free to leave links in the comments.)

Specific details aside, it seems that the project is majority funded by federal and municipal tax dollars.

Do you believe that groups like Youth for Christ have good intentions? Do you believe they do much good for the communities they serve in?

Jeff: Of course YFC has good intentions. The central premise of their mission is that by bringing christ into the lives of youth, they will help to mentor and apostle youth and help them, to become better members of society. There is simply no evidence that this is true. There is evidence that drawing children further away from their parents, and removing them for their traditional cultural beliefs does damage as it divides the house hold on religious lines. Canadians have plenty of experience with this after the tragic residential schools program that forced 150,000 aboriginal youth into christian residential schools. This resulted in thousands of disaffected citizens, thousands of broken homes and a federal class action law suit against the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and United churches, and the federal government costing taxpayers billions of dollars. The law suit was won and payments are currently being made to tens of thousands of former students. Point Douglas residents have politely raised this issue at public hearings for the YFC center, only to be dismissed. Government intrusion into the religious lives of Canadians is just not unacceptable. This Youth for Christ center is yet another example of government intrusion into private citizens religious lives because they have no other recreation center to use. They could have built and funded a small recreation center and everyone would have been ecstatic.

Gem: The youth in this area are at serious risk. While I find the idea of preaching to those who are vulnerable in this way to be distasteful, I recognise the rights of a religious institution to attempt to sway those to whom it gives aid toward its philosophical perspective. What I find most troubling, however, is that the government is effectively amplifying Youth for Christ's message. If the government had spent its [money] to build its own recreational centre, youth in the area would have two places they could go: a small sectarian centre and a large secular one. Instead, they have only a large sectarian centre, funded mostly by the government. Instead of providing the youth in the area with a place they can feel comfortable, whatever their religious or philosophical inclination, the mayor has instead effectively given Youth for Christ a megaphone for their religious message.

Jeff: A bit of history: Until YFC arrived, there was no recreation complex in Point Douglas, the poorest area of Winnipeg and this YFC center was put forth as an alternative by our Mayor, Sam Katz and federal officials. Area residents had asked government for funding for a small a recreation/sports centre with paid staff and they instead got the YFC center. Community leaders had also asked for more money for youth programs to be directed to aboriginal youth and monies for those programs are being diverted for the YFC center. The youth drop in centers I refer to were not religious in nature, anyone would feel comfortable there.

A large number of the residents in this area are aboriginal and follow traditional aboriginal teachings rather than Christianity. Winnipeg has a population of 675,000 people of which 72,000 are aboriginal. Point Douglas has the highest percentage of aboriginal people in all of Winnipeg and is one of the largest urban gatherings of aboriginal people in North America. Aboriginal religious leaders for the areas are very concerned that this center will have an undue religious influence on their youth, leading them away from traditional beliefs. Parents are worried that YFC's large multimedia stage will be used to send an overtly Christian message to any child who would attend a function at the center.

Meanwhile funding for aboriginal youth drop in centers has been dropped to at least two small organizations since the announcement for the new YFC center was made causing the, to close. Concerns have also been raised at other YFC locations in Winnipeg because the organization evangelizes aggressively, stopping sports events for a paid volunteer to lead "prayer time" and deliver a Christian message. Some youth who are not christian are pressured to participate in the ritual or be ostracized, where they have to leave while the message is being delivered. There is no simple way to opt out of the religious instruction. As president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba I have heard these complaints personally and I take such matters very seriously, especially when tax dollars are being used as a basis for funding.

Finally, there is the issue of tax dollars being used to Fund an evangelistic religious organization. This is a concern from a civil liberties perspective. Canada, is by definition multicultural we are not a "melting pot" as you are in the US.

Gem: I'm glad that the youth in the area have some place to go, but I think that government money is best spent on secular approaches to problems to avoid undue entanglement between religion and government. When I donate money to a charitable organisation, I want to know that it is going toward helping people in empirically demonstrable ways, rather than toward indoctrination. Canada already has a troubled history when it comes to religiously motivated mistreatment of aboriginal youth, and I'd hate to think that we haven't learned from our mistakes.

So, what do you think? Were Jeff and I totally off base? We're interested in hearing your thoughts about the article, what we had to say, and about the youth centre itself.

Edit: I amended the second paragraph above to include the title of the CP article, as several commenters on Facebook and the WS blog had assumed (because of the title of this post) that the title of the CP article was "Humanists, Skeptics Attack New Youth For Christ Rec Center". I used the word "attack" in scare quotes here because it had been used in the CP article to describe legitimate criticism of the youth centre. Sorry for the confusion!


  1. Nursing Student23 March, 2012 04:30

    What a great articulation of the concerns I feel regarding the use of public funds to support religion. I am shocked and appalled! For some reason the issues raised by this article really light a fire in my belly. I was turned on to this issue via the Centre for Policy Alternatives. Even Health Canada and the University of Winnipeg evidently support this monstrosity! What can we do to help?

    1. I'm a fan of registering your dissatisfaction with City Hall. This may give them pause when they consider funding sectarian options in the future. It's also important to raise awareness. These organisations tend to run a very inclusive, ecumenical PR campaign when they're looking for funds, but the message that they send to those they purport to help is often a very different matter.