Ex-dance program head alleges discrimination against LGBTQ community at Youth For Christ Winnipeg

The former director of a government-subsidized dance program in Winnipeg run by an evangelical Christian charity says she was told by her boss she couldn’t hire an employee because she is LGBTQ.

Kim Hildebrand started working at Masterworks, a dance program run by Youth for Christ Winnipeg out of its building at Main Street and Higgins Avenue, 15 years ago and worked her way up to the role of director.

In 2020, a student in the program who had just graduated from high school came out to her friends in the program about her sexuality and applied to work on Hildebrand’s team, she said.

“I was ready to hire her … and I was not allowed to,” Hildebrand told CBC News.

The person was Christian and well-qualified for the job, Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand says Youth For Christ Winnipeg has hiring policies that are discriminatory toward members of the LGBTQ community, a sentiment echoed by former employees and volunteers from the Edge Skatepark, another program run by Youth For Christ Winnipeg.

Earlier this month, a coalition of skateboarders came together to fundraise for an inclusive indoor skate park, alleging the facility at Youth For Christ’s downtown building, which receives funding from all levels of government, isn’t a safe place for LGBTQ people.

The Masterworks studio is in the Youth For Christ Winnipeg building on Main Street and Higgins Avenue. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A person who worked at Youth For Christ Winnipeg gave CBC Manitoba a document employees are required to sign that includes the directive to uphold “the purity and sanctity of sexual relations within marriage” and that says the charity believes marriage must be between one man and one woman.

The same wording can be found in older versions of employee manuals from other regions of Canada.

Youth For Christ Winnipeg’s volunteer policy, which CBC News was given by a former volunteer, has an identical clause but gives volunteers the option to agree not to oppose the organization’s mission and values and not to speak against the agency or its values, rather than sign the agreement.

In a written statement to CBC News late Wednesday, Youth For Christ Winnipeg executive director Cliff Heide says the organization believes staff are “ministers of the gospel and as members of a religious order, we have an agreed-upon set of beliefs and behaviours that we follow,” which includes beliefs on marriage and sexuality.

“Our beliefs have not changed in our rapidly changing culture, but we have been learning and growing in our ability to walk with young people through these challenging cultural matters.”

In a statement to media last week, Youth for Christ Winnipeg said “all young people are welcomed and valued” at the organization, “regardless of religious belief, people group or sexual orientation.” 

Government funding

Youth For Christ Winnipeg has received more than $357,000 in funding through Canada’s Summer Jobs program since 2017.

Leah Gazan, the member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre, where the evangelical Christian charity’s office is located, called for a review of the federal funds used to support Youth for Christ Winnipeg in an open letter on Tuesday.

“It is unacceptable for an organization that has received significant public funding to employ practices that discriminate against the 2SLGBTQ community,” she wrote.

“Given what’s now on the public record about YFC’s volunteer and hiring policies, I am concerned that federal money was used to weaken the exercise of those fundamental rights.”

In 2019, the federal government changed its application process to require funding applicants to declare their work doesn’t infringe upon any Canadian’s legal rights.

Mila Roy, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees the summer jobs program, said the department is aware of the complaints against Youth For Christ Winnipeg but wouldn’t comment about its ongoing funding.

The department reserves the right to withhold future funds, she said.

“Young people deserve to work in safe, inclusive, and healthy work environments,” Roy said in an email on Wednesday.

“Our government is committed to ensuring that all Canada Summer Jobs placements are free from harassment and discrimination.”

Hildebrand disputes the charity’s statements that they welcome and value all youth.

‘You’re harming them’

“It’s just not okay that we can say that we’re accepting these kids, because you’re harming them because you’re saying that you’re accepted here, but I can’t hire anybody as my leaders and staff who look like you or who act like you,” she said.

In 2021, she left her job because of the organization’s hiring policies.

“I just said I can’t, I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do it. It’s not right in my heart.”

Hildebrand said she loved her job and felt she was really making a difference in the program, which helped low-income families by offering free dance classes and attire, as well as rides to and from class.

Youth For Christ Winnipeg calls the Masterworks dance program one of the biggest and most impactful ministry programs it oversees. The dance studio has been shuttered since August. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Hilary James worked as a part-time dance teacher for five years before she quit this summer.

She said more than half of the Masterworks staff, herself included, disagreed with the requirement that they sign a statement of faith, but didn’t speak openly about it because they didn’t want to rock the boat.

“They were worried that they couldn’t survive without being a part of YFC because … they have this massive facility that we were able to use and they have massive funding,” James said.

About four months ago, the program, which was at one point considered the biggest and most impactful ministry of Youth For Christ, was put on pause, a statement on the website says.

“The five YFC staff who were giving leadership to Masterworks felt a call to something beyond the scope of YFC, and they have moved on from their employment with YFC Winnipeg,” the statement said.

Youth For Christ Winnipeg said on its website that the Masterworks program will remain on pause while it reassesses staffing and programming there.

Several former Masterworks staff created a new dance program after the downtown studio was shuttered.

Hildebrand and James still feel the loss of the original program.

“I would love to see that space being safe again. That facility is amazing. All of our dance floors, all of our dance studios, our home is sitting empty. It is empty. It is dark. No one is using it,” Hildebrand said.

James said there’s a solution.

“It’s really sad to watch it crumble to the detriment of the youth, and there’s a really easy way to solve that, and they just absolutely refuse to make any sort of change — any sort of meaningful change, at least.”

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