Colonizing skating in Winnipeg

YFC’s exclusionary policies create barriers for underrepresented skaters

Winnipeg's only indoor skatepark, The Edge, is run by evangelical megachurch Youth for Christ. Their policies are leaving many local skaters feeling left out in the cold. (Photo by Leigh Lugosi)

Winter in Manitoba can last for six to eight months, which leaves little time for residents to enjoy outdoor summer activities. When sports and hobbies can’t happen in the snow, Winnipeggers will adapt by building infrastructure to enjoy things like rock climbing or soccer year-round. It’s a problem, however, when people can’t access or are excluded from that infrastructure. To my knowledge, Winnipeg has one indoor skatepark, while the outdoor venues are shuttered for much of the year by snow.

Called The Edge, this skatepark is located in the Youth For Christ (YFC) building at the intersection of Higgins and Main. YFC is an international evangelical Christian megachurch with locations in more than 100 countries on six continents.

In August, The Edge released a statement on Instagram saying their fall schedule was still undetermined. Comments for this post are turned off, and the schedule still isn’t live. The Edge subsequently barred all skaters over the age of 17, leaving them out in the cold where they can no longer skate in Winnipeg’s isolating winters.

YFC used to provide a space for all skaters, bladers and scooters in Winnipeg. In the past, I have attended nights specifically set aside for women and non-binary people. Carving out this time made The Edge more welcoming for 2SLGTBQIA+ patrons and other nondenominational skaters in a sport dominated by white, cis men.

The park has quietly phased out their nights for women and non-binary skaters – along with adult programming altogether. Ignoring these skaters is wrong and irresponsible, especially when YFC hosts the only indoor skatepark.

It is no secret that skateboarders are considered delinquents by some in our society. I have witnessed the church take it upon itself to “save” these people who might turn to a life of deviance by providing them with Christian values. I have noticed this a lot in the skating community all over Canada. Not all skaters are Christian, and we should be able to share a space, a community and a sport without talking about the things that divide us.

Forcing God down our throats while participating in hobbies we enjoy and using exclusionary policies is colonization and attempted assimilation in a modern sense. Faith statements released by YFC make it clear who is and who is not welcome or accepted. Attempted assimilation to Christianity is still too normalized. At The Edge, skaters who do not wish to be preached at have little choice in the matter.

Historically, Christian spaces have been both unwelcoming and discriminatory toward queer and Indigenous people. In 2021, The Edge introduced an ongoing policy that Indigenous people can skate for free on their own land. While this acknowledges colonialism, it doesn’t actually take responsibility for harm done by the church to Indigenous peoples in the past.

Not charging Indigenous skaters is a small price to pay. Simply not taking money does not make the space more welcoming or solve the root causes of YFC’s exclusionary practices. Reconciliation requires more than a land acknowledgment. It requires action and culpability.

YFC’s existence at Higgins and Main has been controversial since it was first proposed more than a decade ago. That intersection is also home to Thunderbird House, which was created to provide Indigenous folks in the neighbourhood with cultural and land-based teachings and practices, including language programming and spiritual practices.

These were meant to help folks reconnect with practices attacked by colonialism. Some argued that housing an evangelical Christian organization across the street, with the explicit goal of preaching to that community, was modern colonization in action.

In the last five years, YFC has received millions of dollars in government funding, including more than $357,000 through summer-jobs grants. It’s unclear, however, where this money has gone. Meanwhile, Thunderbird House has been falling into disrepair for years, suffering from structural problems that could likely be addressed with a fraction of the public money that YFC receives.

While YFC employs some staff members, many other “workers” are volunteers. With the organization recently imposing an age limit on participants, it’s clear YFC isn’t using the valuable public funds they receive to help Winnipeg’s entire skating community.

When YFC blamed the absence of a schedule on a lack of staff, I and others applied to help out in order to have adult skates. All of us openly queer, and none of us made the cut. YFC has been called out on their volunteer-screening processes, yet no obvious hiring changes have been made.

YFC’s volunteer application form features pledges including a statement of faith and a vow not to participate in homosexuality. While people can opt out of these pledges and instead agree to “not oppose YFC’s mission or values,” this is still asking for a signature endorsing those discriminatory values. These screening methods not only block the space by making it unwelcoming to many skaters but also carry out colonial values.

It took until Nov. 21 of this year for YFC to release a pitiful excuse for an apology – and only due to receiving significant backlash.

This statement focused on addressing their commitment to youth skating (not the problem) and recognized “particular instances that patrons (members of the 2SLGTBQIA+ community) may have felt unsafe.” This statement did not address their documentation that proclaimed their commitment “to the purity and sanctity of sexual relations within marriage, which we believe is a committed union between one man and one woman.”

YFC is actively causing harm to the adult skating community in Winnipeg by gatekeeping the city’s only readily available skatepark in winter. Like many others who participate in wheel sports, roller skating is how I find happiness. Not only is it wildly inappropriate that YFC can discriminate against the queer community, they are now actively causing harm to all adult skaters by gatekeeping an activity many rely on for exercise, community and happiness.

The Winnipeg skating community is trying to build new infrastructure that will be open, available and welcoming to all people. This will take time, resources and money that no one has in this community. While skateboarding is now in the Olympics and should be taken seriously, a lot of us only participate in our spare time.

Like all organizations, YFC has a responsibility to the communities it serves. That responsibility goes beyond simply creating a physical space for skating, while continuing to perpetuate harmful colonial and anti-queer ideals.

If YFC wants to continue existing in skating communities, they need to acknowledge the harm they have done and continue to do, while making a genuine effort to do better. As it stands now, all they’re doing is holding Winnipeg’s skating community hostage.

Maeve Smith started rollerskating in 2020, when they attended Winnipeg Roller Derby’s “Fresh Meat” training program. When the pandemic hit and derby shut down, they took their skates to the park and have been shredding ever since.

Published in Volume 77, Number 12 of The Uniter (December 1, 2022)

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