Evangelical-run indoor skate park policies are discriminatory: Winnipeg LGBTQ skateboarders

A coalition of Manitoba skateboarders is banding together against the organization that oversees Winnipeg’s largest indoor skate park, saying its policies are discriminatory.

Maddy Nowosad started attending The Edge Skate Park in the winter of 2019, finding community and friendship there on the ramps.

As she began to explore her sexuality and eventually came out as queer, Nowosad began sharing more about skateboarders who don’t fit the typical mould in a self-published zine called The Other Skaters, and started pitching the idea of a weekly skate night for members of the LGBTQ community.

The Edge, which is a project of Youth for Christ Winnipeg, rejected that idea, she says.

“As soon as I was told that the zine and the 2SLGBTQ-centred sessions and events weren’t welcome in this space, that was the first time that I realized that it wasn’t actually a safe space,” Nowosad said.

A woman with long dark hair in a black and white striped shirt sits at a table behind three self-published zines, all bearing the title "The Other Skaters"
Nowosad says she wanted to display her self-published booklets about LGBTQ skateboarders at The Edge, but wasn’t allowed. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

As she spent more time at The Edge, Nowosad says, she came to believe that the non-profit, which has received more than $1 million of funding from all levels of government over the last five years, was discriminating against the LGBTQ community.

Emilie Rafnson, a former employee at The Edge whose contract ended in 2019, filed a human rights complaint against Youth For Christ Winnipeg in 2020, and reached a settlement through a mediator last month.

Rafnson identifies as queer and met Nowosad, their partner of three years, at The Edge.

As a condition of the settlement, Rafnson is unable to discuss the particulars of the complaint, but confirms it was related to a contract they had to sign as a condition of employment.

Youth for Christ Winnipeg’s building on Main Street and Higgins Avenue is home to the city’s largest indoor skate park. The non-profit has received more than $1 million from all levels of government over the last five years. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

CBC News was given a Youth for Christ Winnipeg document from a person who was employed there that reads, in part, that they must uphold “the purity and sanctity of sexual relations within marriage which we believe is a committed union between one man and one woman.”

Older versions of employee manuals from other regions of Canada show the same wording.

In recent Youth For Christ Winnipeg job postings, it says all staff must be in agreement with that statement of faith.

The full statement of faith isn’t a publicly-accessible document.

The agency’s volunteer policy, which CBC News was given, has an identical clause, but allows volunteers who are not able to sign in agreement to at least agree to not oppose YFC’s mission and values, and to not speak disparagingly about the agency or its values.

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

However, it did not address the hiring and volunteer policies or allegations of discrimination against staff and volunteers.

Rafnson no longer skates at The Edge.

“It sucks because it’s a really great park and I have a lot of good memories there and I’ve met a lot of good people and I have a lot of friends that I’ve met because of it,” they said. “But just because of the mental toll that the whole ordeal has taken on me … it’s just really not a space that I’m comfortable being in.”

A person with long blonde hair wearing a white t-shirt does a skateboarding trick in an indoor skatepark, with a number of people watching in the background.
Emilie Rafnson says they used to frequently skateboard at The Edge but no longer goes there after they filed a human rights complaint against Youth for Christ Winnipeg. (Submitted by Emilie Rafnson)

Nowosad, Rafnson and a long-time director of the skate park are a part of a skateboarding coalition involving individuals and businesses working to fundraise for a new, inclusive indoor skate park.

Geoff Reimer, who worked at The Edge for 13 years, left his job in 2021 following what he said was a number of unsuccessful attempts to petition the leadership at YFC Winnipeg to create a weekly inclusive space for the LGBTQ community in support of his friends.

“It just came to a point where there just wasn’t any progress being made in the right direction, and at one point I just completely lost hope,” Reimer said.

Longtime skateboarder Megan McKay told CBC News she attended The Edge in the Fall of 2019 to take part in a women’s skateboarding night.

McKay says there were pamphlets and resources for LGBTQ people laid out on a table, as well as information about safer drug use.

She recall there were nine staff members from The Edge who were focused on the table throughout the night and eventually asked that the pamphlets be put away, saying: “This doesn’t align with our values here.”

Potential new space bringis hope

The Manitoba Skateboard Coalition’s fundraising efforts started in earnest after a number of staff members at The Edge resigned this year, the coalition says, leaving few people to staff the indoor skate park.

Youth For Christ Winnipeg confirm there are staff shortages, and says it made the decision to prioritize youth aged 12-17 to skate four hours a week at the indoor facility.

Youth for Christ Winnipeg says ‘all young people are welcomed and valued’ at the organization. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The adults who are part of the coalition know the indoor skate park isn’t likely to be complete this winter, but they’re hopeful there will soon be an inclusive space for skateboarders of all age groups.

Nowosad hopes the skateboard coalition will receive government funding, but in the meantime, supportive businesses are collecting donations.

She says it will centre Black, Indigenous, communities of colour and LGBTQ people, in decision making roles.

“If those voices aren’t a part of organizing the space, then I don’t know that it’s possible for those groups entering the space to feel safe,” she said.

Reimer added that he has hope about a space for all skateboarders.

“Things like this happen all the time in life where you hit a massive roadblock and then something dies and something else blooms and is so beautiful,” Reimer said.

“That’s the vision I have in my mind of what the new potential space could be.”

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