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

Materials belonging to the Manitoba Archaeological Society are stored inside a Virden car wash. 'They should be in museums,' said Alicia Gooden, the society's president and owner of the car wash. (Submitted by Alicia Gooden - image credit)
Materials belonging to the Manitoba Archaeological Society are stored inside a Virden car wash. 'They should be in museums,' said Alicia Gooden, the society's president and owner of the car wash. (Submitted by Alicia Gooden - image credit)

One of the most significant archaeological digs in Manitoba's history is exposing a key element of Indigenous history, but the group heading the project says it's also scraping to stay afloat due to chronic under funding by the province.

The Manitoba Archaeological Society has been forced in recent years to cut its only paid staff member and abandon its office. Everything is now stored in the vacant office of a three-bay car wash in the small southwestern Manitoba town of Virden.

"My car wash has a wonderful curated collection of Aboriginal artifacts, but they should be in museums," said Alicia Gooden, the society's president and owner of the car wash.

"They should be displayed properly and stored properly," she said. "Same with our records — I've got 60-year-old amazing records just sitting in boxes."

Submitted by Alicia Gooden
Submitted by Alicia Gooden

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

"They [government] say they want to support heritage but they really don't put their money where their mouth is."

Goldsborough recently penned a call to action on the state of Manitoba's heritage, published in the journal Prairie History, on behalf of the eight provincial heritage agencies — his historical society, the Association for Manitoba Archives, the Association of Manitoba Museums, Heritage Winnipeg, the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, La Société historique de Saint-Boniface, the Manitoba Archaeological Society and the Manitoba Genealogical Society.

Provincial grants are an essential part of the annual budgets of those agencies, but there has not been a meaningful increase in 20 years, said Goldsborough, which has slowly choked their ability to do anything.

Submitted by Alicia Gooden
Submitted by Alicia Gooden

Most are now run by unpaid volunteers with responsibilities formerly handled by trained professionals in provincial government heritage branches.

Those volunteers are now edging toward burnout, which threatens the caretaking of Manitoba's history and heritage, Goldsborough and Gooden say.

'Functioning, but barely'

Cutbacks that began in the mid-1990s eliminated many paid heritage jobs in government, and the province leaned on unaffiliated heritage agencies to carry the load.

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

"We could no longer use it to pay the phone bill or pay our office manager," she said.

Submitted by Alicia Gooden
Submitted by Alicia Gooden

The province also began to dictate which projects to do, she said, asking the agencies to work collaboratively, especially around events for Manitoba's 150th birthday in 2020.

The province is essentially providing money to do what it would have done in the past, said Gooden, which is frustrating. Her passion for the job is keeping her holding on by her fingertips, she said.

"I want to do this work but if I keep doing as much as I'm doing without the government providing for us, they're just going to go, 'Oh well, you're clearly capable of functioning on this tiny amount of money. Keep going,'" said Gooden.

"We're functioning, but barely. Volunteer burnout is real. We can't keep doing this forever. We're part of this province and we have been laid by the wayside by the government."

Goldsborough's call to action says Manitoba's "woeful funding situation … is put into context by comparing the equivalent funding for provincial heritage organizations in Saskatchewan."

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

"The overall average is, like, seven times higher," Goldsborough said in an interview with CBC News.

Martin Labbé/Radio-Canada
Martin Labbé/Radio-Canada

Matters were made worse, he said, by a new funding submission form the province released in March 2022 that he feels underscores how little the government cares about heritage.

The first page, which asks for the grant amount requested, includes a note saying it "must be equal to last year's grant amount," Goldsborough said.

"What's the point of even asking then? The formula basically dictates you will get no increase."

Met with minister

In spring 2022, a representative from each of the heritage agencies attended a meeting with provincial Sport, Culture and Heritage Minister Andrew Smith.

"We wanted to make the impression that this wasn't just one group that was upset about things," Goldsborough said. "It was everyone."

The minister was asked to provide stable funding to enable each agency to have at least an office and one paid staff person.

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

Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough
Submitted by Gordon Goldsborough

Instead, they received a letter from a civil servant "basically telling us, 'Nope, sorry, we can't give you anything.' We didn't even get the courtesy of a reply from the minister," he said.

CBC News reached out to Smith's office for response. An emailed statement from a spokesperson said the government "values the heritage sector and the many Manitobans who work or volunteer" in it.

The email outlined funding for heritage sites, museums and war memorials, and said the province provides annual support for more than 175 organizations working on heritage conservation and education.

There was no reference specifically to the provincial heritage associations, their concerns or the strings attached to the funding.

'A huge discovery'

In the meantime, Gooden remains focused on the major archaeological dig in southwestern Manitoba, near Melita. Known as the Olson site, it has offered up evidence that Indigenous people were farming before European contact.

Submitted by Alicia Gooden
Submitted by Alicia Gooden

"It's a huge discovery. It started off as what we thought was maybe a small little tool-making site," but it's turned into something much bigger, Gooden said.

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

"It's redefining … how we interpret agriculture, how we interpret oral histories from 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 determine a timeline for when Dakota people first arrived in the area, Gooden said.

The society can only offer up $6,300 a year toward 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 all these huge doors that are so exciting and we need to keep pressing on it, [but] we're barely, barely, barely scraping by," Gooden said.

"I'm doing the best I can. That's what we're all doing."