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Past in peril: Manitoba heritage agencies say they’re being choked by chronic underfunding

One of the most significant archaeological digs in Manitoba’s history is uncovering a key element of Indigenous history, but the group leading the project says the province’s chronic lack of funding is also making it difficult to stay afloat.

The Manitoba Archaeological Society has been forced to downsize its only paid employee and to vacate its office in recent years. It’s all now stored in the vacant office of a three-bay car wash in the small town of Virden, southwest Manitoba.

“My car wash has a beautifully curated collection of Aboriginal artifacts, but they should be in museums,” said Alicia Gooden, president of the society and owner of the car wash.

“They should be properly displayed and properly stored,” she said. “Same with our records — I have amazing 60-year-old records just lying around in boxes.”

A blue building with three large drive-through doors for washing vehicles.  A car wash sign hangs above the entrance door between two of the car washes.
The car wash in Virden, Manitoba, where the Manitoba Archaeological Society now stores its materials. (Submitted by Alicia Gooden)

Gooden’s story is not an isolated story, said Gordon Goldsborough, president of the Manitoba Historical Society.

“She [government] say they want to support heritage, but they really don’t spend their money where their mouths are.”

Goldsborough recently wrote a call to action on the state of Manitoba’s heritage, which was published in the magazine history of the prairieon behalf of the eight provincial heritage agencies – its historical society, the Association for Manitoba Archives, the Association of Manitoba Museums, Heritage Winnipeg, the Jewish Heritage Center of Western Canada, La Société historique de Saint-Boniface, the Manitoba Archaeological Society and the Manitoba Genealogical Society.

Provincial grants are a key part of these agencies’ annual budgets, but there hasn’t been a significant increase in 20 years, Goldsborough said, which has slowly stifled their ability to do anything.

A woman in a white shirt, hat and sunglasses is standing in a field of tall grass.
Gooden says the Manitoba Archaeological Society gets by on a small sum that the province says cannot be used for operating costs. (Submitted by Alicia Gooden)

Most are now run by unpaid volunteers whose duties were formerly performed by trained professionals in the provincial government’s heritage departments.

Those volunteers are now nearing burnout, which threatens the maintenance of Manitoba’s history and heritage, Goldsborough and Gooden say.

‘Works, but hardly’

Cutbacks that began in the mid-1990s eliminated many paid heritage jobs in government, and the province relied on unaffiliated heritage agencies to shoulder the burden.

Then, in 2007, the government said the grant money for those agencies could no longer be used for operational purposes — only for projects like the Manitoba Day celebration, Gooden said.

“We couldn’t use it anymore to pay the phone bill or to pay our office manager,” she said.

Cardboard boxes are stacked four to five high in front of a white wall.
Boxes containing reports and documents from the Manitoba Archaeological Society are kept in the offices of the Virden Car Wash. “We barely, barely, barely get by,” says Gooden. (Submitted by Alicia Gooden)

The province also began mandating what projects should be undertaken, she said, urging agencies to work together, particularly around events marking Manitoba’s 150th birthday in 2020.

The province is essentially allocating money to do what it would have done in the past, Gooden said, which is frustrating. Her passion for the job keeps her at her fingertips, she said.

“I want to do this work, but if I do as much as I do without the government taking care of us, they’ll just say, ‘Well, you’re clearly able to function with this tiny amount of money . Keep going,” Gooden said.

“We function, but hardly. Volunteer burnout is real. We can’t go on like this forever. We are part of this province and have been left behind by the government.”

Goldsborough’s call to action states that Manitoba’s “pathetic funding situation…is placed in context by comparing equivalent funding for provincial heritage organizations in Saskatchewan.”

Annual funding for agencies in Manitoba ranges from $11,200 to $75,900, with a median of $27,400, according to Goldsborough’s article. Similar associations in Saskatchewan are getting $170,000 to $582,000 (median $180,500), he wrote.

“The overall average is about seven times higher,” Goldsborough said in an interview with CBC News.

A man with a white beard and a baseball cap peers out the door of a wooden building, a camera hanging by his arm.
Gordon Goldsborough, President of the Manitoba Historical Society, recently issued a call for action on the State of Manitoba’s heritage funding. (Martin Labbé/Radio Canada)

Matters have been made worse, he said, by a new provincial funding application form released in March 2022, which he says underscores the government’s lack of concern for heritage.

The first page that asks for the grant amount requested includes a note that it “must match last year’s grant amount,” Goldsborough said.

“Then what’s the point of even asking about it? The formula basically dictates that you will not get a raise.”

Minister met

In spring 2022, a representative from each heritage authority attended a meeting with the province’s Minister for Sport, Culture and Heritage, Andrew Smith.

“We wanted to give the impression that this isn’t just a group that gets upset about things,” Goldsborough said. “It was everyone.”

The minister has been asked to provide stable funding so that each agency can have at least one office and one paid staff member.

The group has not heard from the minister since, Goldsborough said.

A man with a white beard and a baseball cap holds his right arm up while grasping a steel pole in a wooden structure.
Goldsborough, seen here in the outbuilding of a wooden granary, says the provincial heritage associations had a meeting with the culture and heritage minister last year but have not heard from him since. (Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough)

Instead, they received a letter from an officer “who basically told us, ‘No, sorry, we can’t give you anything.’ We didn’t even get a reply from the minister,” he said.

CBC News reached out to Smith’s office for a response. An emailed statement from a spokesman said the government “appreciates the heritage sector and the many Manitobans who work or volunteer in it.”

Outlining funding for heritage sites, museums and war memorials, the email said the province annually supports more than 175 organizations working on heritage preservation and education.

No explicit reference was made to the state monument associations, their concerns or the conditions associated with the funding.

“A Huge Discovery”

In the meantime, Gooden remains focused on the major archaeological dig in southwest Manitoba near Melita. Known as the Olson site, it has provided evidence that Native peoples farmed prior to European contact.

Animal bones can be seen in a shallow pit dug in the ground at an archaeological dig site.
A photo shows a variety of bison and other bones used as tools at the Olson dig site in southwest Manitoba. The dig “redefines … how we interpret agriculture, how we interpret oral histories of the indigenous peoples who lived there at the time,” says Gooden. (Submitted by Alicia Gooden)

“It’s a huge discovery. It started as what we thought might be a small tool shop,” but it’s grown into something much bigger, Gooden said.

The area has never been cultivated so the artifacts are undisturbed.

“It redefines … how we interpret agriculture, how we interpret oral histories of the indigenous peoples who lived there at the time,” Gooden said.

The Manitoba Archaeological Society is also working with the Canupawakpa Dakota First Nation to establish a timeline for the Dakota’s initial arrival in the region, Gooden said.

The Society can only commit up to $6,300 per year to the project, a joint effort with Brandon University. So Mary Malainey, an anthropology professor at BU, applies for grants wherever she can.

“It’s opened up all these huge doors that are so exciting and we need to keep pushing, [but] we hardly, hardly, hardly get by,” Gooden said.

“I do my best. We all do that.”

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