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Maddy Nowosad in Winnipeg, on Nov. 27, 2022.Shannon VanRaes/Globe and Mail

The night Maddy Nowosad met her girlfriend two and a half years ago was magic – full of butterflies, pounding hearts, joy and wonder. It was frightening, too: “When I got home, I had the biggest panic attack ever. I turned my phone off. I felt physically ill. I had to come to terms with what was happening.”

There’s not a lot of things scarier to a young person than being different. And the University of Winnipeg student, then a “deeply” closeted young woman who loved skateboarding, grew up in an unaccepting evangelical church.

Ms. Nowosad, now 23, and her girlfriend, Emilie Rafnson, who is also a skateboarder, were soon spending a lot of time at The Edge, a Winnipeg skate park that is ranked among the country’s top three indoor facilities – and which is run by a conservative evangelical organization.

That two women, who happen to be in love, were spending time there would ultimately lead to a conflict involving many people at The Edge – and would spark a citywide debate about whether a place like it should be financially supported by government.

The park is located in a downtown complex built by Youth For Christ, a global Christian ministry. The $13.6-million, 53,000-square-foot centre is also home to a climbing wall and dance studio. It opened in 2012 on a promise to provide a space for Indigenous and other area youth. Governments provided roughly half the funding required to build the complex, with the City of Winnipeg contributing $2.6-million and a $500,000 land grant, and the federal government providing $3-million in matched funding.

Ms. Nowosad found her people there – queer friends who helped her feel safe and seen and comfortable being herself. She wanted to pay that forward, and approached The Edge about holding a dedicated 2SLGBTQ+ skate session.

The Edge’s co-director Geoff Reimer thought this sounded great. “Helping people support each other and come together – that’s my jam,” he told the Globe and Mail. “I love to do that.”

More importantly, Mr. Reimer knew that more than 50 per cent of gay youth seriously contemplated suicide in the last year, according to a recent U.S. study, and that 18 per cent made an attempt. He saw the potential skate session as “life giving,” and essential, he says.

Maddy Nowosad and Geoff Reimer in Winnipeg.Shannon VanRaes/Globe and Mail

Youth For Christ, however, has policies restricting open 2SLGBTQ+ identification, so Mr. Reimer and others spent months engaging with leadership at the organization, hoping they would reconsider. Rather, it seemed that Youth For Christ leadership used the discussions to press Ms. Nowosad and others about their sexuality: “They had us baring our souls – these fully grown adults asking us how our families reacted when we came out,” Ms. Nowosad says.

Mr. Reimer quit when it became clear that leadership would not budge. Dozens of staff and volunteers followed, forcing The Edge to sharply cut back its hours and eliminate programming for skaters over 17.

An almost identical controversy was meanwhile playing out at Masterworks, a government-subsidized dance program run in the same Youth For Christ complex on the corner of Main Street and Higgins Avenue, the gateway to the city’s North End. For years, Masterworks helped low-income youth and families take part in ballet and hip hop with ride programs and discounted classes.

Problems arose last year when director Kim Hildebrand tried to hire a new staff member, a recent high school graduate who had long been involved with Masterworks. The prospective staffer was Christian, well-qualified and happened to have recently come out as a lesbian to friends in the dance program. Ms. Hildebrand says she was barred by Youth For Christ from hiring the young woman because of her sexuality. She couldn’t stomach the decision, and left. Four others followed.

The dance program was forced to take a “pause,” according to a statement on its website. “The five staff who were giving leadership to Masterworks felt a call to something beyond the scope of YFC, and have moved on,” the statement reads.

As so, as the darkest days of winter approach, Winnipeg’s only indoor skate park is open just two nights a week – and only to kids under 17. And one of the city’s only affordable dance programs has shuttered.

When the Globe visited on a recent afternoon, there was not a single child or youth inside. The towering rock-climbing wall stood empty. The dance studio was vacant. The skate park, with its seven-foot concrete bowl and murals painted by young urban artists, was locked, the lights turned out.

Meanwhile, the controversy has provoked residents to begin asking a question that could ultimately have national repercussions: Should religious groups with openly exclusionary policies receive public funding?

According to returns filed with the federal government, Youth For Christ Winnipeg, a charitable organization, has received $1,792,488 from three levels of government in the last five years, the bulk of it from the federal government.

A decade ago, when it first applied for federal funding to open the centre, Youth For Christ’s stated goal was to provide youth development activities “with special attention given to addressing the need of high-risk youth and aboriginal youth.” The plan goes on to say the centre would offer youth a “safe haven” after school, on weekends, and during summer – to “benefit all youth but especially aboriginal, low-income and high-risk youth.”

In an e-mail, executive director Cliff Heide told The Globe and Mail that the “majority” of the organization’s funding does not come from government, but from private supporters. In terms of selecting employees, Mr. Heide said that “a key qualifier for many YFC positions is for our staff to work as Ministers of the Gospel, following and teaching biblical principles.”

He added: The need for our services continues to encourage us to create a place for youth to explore the teachings of Christ, and to be loved and supported by caring adults that value their health and wellbeing.”

Meanwhile, as the evangelical organization has received almost $2-million in public funds for its building, directly across Main Street, Thunderbird House – a gathering place for Indigenous people – has been allowed to fall into disrepair. Its windows have been smashed. Copper has been stolen from its roof. It sits behind a fence, as if it were under construction. “This is the poorest postal code in Canada,” says North End resident Kat Sjoberg. “Where is the funding for Thunderbird House? Why are we giving money to an organization with exclusionary policies that does not serve the local community?”

Problems with providing public funding to Youth For Christ could have been foreseen. To work there, staff are required to sign a statement promising to uphold the belief that marriage is a “union between one man and one woman.” The statement also commits signatories to abstain from alcohol, pornography and sex out of wedlock.

It seems, however, that the provision barring gay love was the only one strictly upheld. Former staff say their superiors told them the workaround to the alcohol provision was “closet drinking.” An unmarried staff member recently had a baby.

Mila Roy, a spokesperson for Economic and Social Development Canada, told the Globe that the department couldn’t speak to specific cases, but added: “If an organization has been approved for funding but is later found to be in contravention of the articles of agreement, the department reserves the right to revoke funding.” Neither the Manitoba government, nor the City of Winnipeg have responded to the Globe.

For 13 years, Youth for Christ was Mr. Reimer’s “dream job,” he says. “It was everything.” He led skate sessions, built ramps, counselled the young people in his care, who became his “little brothers and sisters.” He has a tattoo on his calf depicting The Edge logo, a testament to his love for the place. He is “still a Jesus fan,” but is no longer a member of any church, and says he will not work for a “bigoted religious organization.”

For now, he’s focusing on his three young children, and moving on from an experience that left him profoundly hurt – but he still hopes to again serve the needs of his community.

He and Ms. Nowosad recently formed the Manitoba Skateboard Coalition. Their goal is to build an indoor skate park that will welcome people of all ages, genders and orientations.

The idea already has the enthusiastic support of the city’s gay community, the arts community and the skate community. Club Happening, a gay bar in the city, is hosting karaoke nights to raise money for the skate group. Cinemateque, a downtown movie theatre, is hoping to raise funds by screening a documentary about the celebrated trans skater, Leo Bakery. City punk bands are planning fundraising shows. Skate shops are planning skateboard contests.

“I’m so hopeful,” says Ms. Nowosad. “I think a lot of people want to see a new, beautiful space for young people, for older people, for everybody to be able to skate, make art and find a community.”

Editor’s note: Youth for Christ did respond to a request for comment and this version has been updated to include it.