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Moffat Makuto, executive director of the Regional Multicultural Centre in Thunder Bay.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Moffat Makuto scrambled to keep the Thunder Bay youth council he started 35 years ago going.

Over the years, the Regional Multicultural Youth Council has brought Indigenous and non-Indigenous high-school students together to build relationships, act as peer mentors and fight social issues, especially racism. The council is headquartered out of a humble youth centre, located in a former restaurant space in the city’s south core.

The centre almost closed last year due to unpaid property taxes, but was saved by Mr. Makuto and his wife, Siu Lan, who remortgaged their house to pay off the debt.

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The pandemic presented a new challenge to the 70-year-old restaurant owner and executive director of the Multicultural Association of Northwestern Ontario, which is the council’s parent organization.

“Continuity when you work with young people is very important,” Mr. Makuto said.

Before the pandemic, the council met weekly, often at the centre, to plan their many initiatives. For instance, the council held a monthly discussion with high-schoolers from across the city on relevant issues. One session before the shutdown focused on how to create safer schools for LGBTQ2S students.

Council meetings have since moved online, but Mr. Makuto said it’s been difficult to organize, as some young people lack enough data on their phones to participate or were relying on local libraries for internet access.

The council would also normally run after-school programming – and provide food – on weekdays at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, which serves First Nations students, including those who come to Thunder Bay for school from home communities in Northern Ontario.

With schools closed, Mr. Makuto organized the delivery of almost 200 meals a week in April and May to high school students and their families, funded by Kelly and Sarah Carrick, a family from Southern Ontario. In late May, Mr. Makuto helped co-ordinate a donation from the family of 52,000 pounds of rice, meant for local youth, as well as several non-profit organizations and northern First Nations.

In previous summers, council members have volunteered, along with youth from McDowell Lake First Nation, to help plant greenhouses and a memorial garden at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, which were created and designed by AlterEden, an Indigenous landscape and environmental restoration company.

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In the summer, the council hires students to run initiatives and keep the centre open to those looking for a safe place to work or get a snack. This year, Mr. Makuto said they plan to start scaled-back summer programming with a smaller than usual group on July 15, when the current declaration of emergency in Ontario was slated to end. (The declaration has since been extended to July 22).

Daisies grow in a memorial garden planted and curated to honour the seven northern Indigenous youth who died while attending high school in Thunder Bay. The garden is the design and creation of AlterEden, an Indigenous landscape-design company that began the project in 2017. The company has trained youth to create native plant gardens since 1999.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Makuto grew up in Zimbabwe, where his parents ran a mission school for children living in poverty, before immigrating to Canada in 1972 to study at Western University in London, Ont. He recalled the culture shock of moving from a small village to a campus of about 20,000 students and the feeling of being “totally lost.”

It was an experience that Mr. Makuto said helps him identify with First Nations students who move from a reserve of a couple hundred people to Thunder Bay and a high school of 1,000 students.

Mr. Makuto later continued his studies at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, where he founded an international students’ association, before being tapped to head up MANWO and creating the council in 1985.

Despite the council’s long history, it’s been a struggle to keep the lights on since the early 2000s, said Mr. Makuto, who took his last paycheque for running the council in 2001. The council used to cover most of its costs through running bingos, but that revenue dried up after a casino opened in the city in 2000, he said.

By the fall of 2018, Mr. Makuto was facing more than $35,000 in unpaid property taxes. He wrote several e-mails to Thunder Bay’s City Manager Norm Gale and Mayor Bill Mauro asking for their help, but no relief was provided.

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The city put the youth centre up for purchase as a tax sale last spring, so Mr. Makuto and his wife remortgaged their home to pay off the $37,251 bill.

“You become so attached to the young people you work with,” Mr. Makuto said, adding that the youth are looking for him to “walk the talk,” even if the city doesn’t provide him with financial help.

More than 10 years ago, an Ontario government report on youth violence pointed to the success of the council’s peer-to-peer approach, but noted their financial difficulties. It also mentioned an unconventional funding source: a restaurant.

Alongside his wife, Mr. Makuto runs a small Chinese restaurant near the youth centre to help support the council. Meetings are often fuelled by combo meals from the Mandarin.

“A lot of the kids we work with really are not so privileged. So it’s much easier to say, ‘let’s go to meet at the Mandarin, have something to eat,‘ ” Mr. Makuto said.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Makuto had started nudging Bethany Koostachin to join the council. Ms. Koostachin, an upper-year student at the high school, told The Globe and Mail about the impact of joining the youth group.

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Hailey Scott smells lilacs growing in the yard of Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School. Last summer, council members volunteered to assist AlterEden with their garden, planted as a memorial to the seven northern Indigenous youth.

DAVID JACKSON/The Globe and Mail

“It tells us that we’re not alone in our struggles and our suffering, because there’s other youth who carry the same weight and it’s just so much easier knowing you’re not alone,” Ms. Koostachi said.

Kaygan Beardy, who is also a newer member of the council, said that the youth centre “gives us a voice.”

“It gives us the space to come together and actually talk about what we want and the things that we want to do in the future,” Mr. Beardy said.

For Gurleen Chahal, a former youth-council president, Mr. Makuto is more than a mentor to young people in Thunder Bay.

“[Mr. Makuto] is a parent, a friend, an ally, a hero, honestly, to so many kids who have nobody else in their corner,” said Ms. Chahal, who is now in medical residency at the University of Alberta.

“And honestly, I suspect more than a little bit of our funding comes out of [Mr. Makuto’s] own pocket.”

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