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Letter: Coquitlam City Hall 'backstabbed' Maillardville by taking over the new rec centre

The close bonds developed by long-time serving staff at Place Maillardville in Coquitlam has attracted the once-young kids to help run the programs when they become too old to attend any longer, this letter writer states.
place maillardville-Dec 2021
Place Maillardville is due to open this year in Coquitlam.

The Editor, 

Re: Coquitlam to take over operations of new Place Maillardville this fall (March 9, 2022)

Hold on there, Coquitlam: Maillardville’s not dead yet.

Last week the City of Coquitlam backstabbed Maillardville by, without hair of warning, announcing on the eve of spring break that they would take over Place Maillardville Community Centre.

No heads up.

No consultation with the society, or, the community.

One “private” in camera meeting within the shroud of a socially devastating pandemic, escalating gang violence, economic hardship and threatening world war, and bam, community empowerment no longer matters.

I don’t work for or represent any organizations in this matter.

But I used to.

I was working for Place Maillardville when the city announced the intention to finally build a new long-awaited community centre 14 years ago.

I was personally there when grandiose intentions were expressed to engage the community, and build it just how the community wanted and needed for one of the jewels of Tri-City social work, Societe Place Maillardville Society, to operate.

Residents, volunteers, neighbourhood staff, city staff and community workers the region over were excited to see what PM could finally do with a proper facility.

For years they had been punching above their weight as they leveraged hundreds of voluntary staff hours, carefully groomed community relationships and millions of dollars of non-government organization funding which a city — especially one as large and institutional as the City of Coquitlam — could never hope to match.

City staff and consultants struggled to navigate the community and reach out to residents on their terms.

I personally volunteered my own time to bring these consultants to local schools, local events and local gatherings. The feedback of a mere 10 to 20 people multiplied to hundreds and hundreds.

What did the community want?

They wanted the society that was already there to get a proper building so they had enough space to provide proper programs.

In the years since that time, more money has been spent gathering the exact same feedback.

And other than during the pandemic, Place Maillardville’s popularity has only grown.

So what’s the reason for this? I’ve spent over a week looking into it. I really didn’t need that long.

The only public statement by council, contradicting over a decade of public political discourse, suggested that the new facility would suddenly be too “complex” for the society.

The community had “changed."

The new space had to be “maximized” to “benefit the greatest number of residents." 

And yet, all pre-pandemic program activities appear to be operating beyond capacity by staff with decades of “complex” facility management and program operation experience.

The community tells me that kids are bursting to register in after-school programs and the indispensable drop-in program. So much so, in fact, that internal conflict over the limited space has caused friction by other community groups in need of space also.

The new building was to resolve this. So why break what is already fixed?

Mayor Richard Stewart indicated that this was happening because no community group gets a new $20 million community centre and expects to run it themselves? Except the one across the street from city hall, one might ask? Or maybe that’s different because it is a cultural centre?

And no, for the record, this reasoning for taking over Place Maillardville Community Centre hasn’t been given in over 14 years of public consultation.

The most amazing community centre I have ever seen in my life is the city block sized non-profit Entre Amigos near Sayulita, Mexico. The Dalai Llama has given it special recognition as a unique social service provider in the world, and if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

In fact, there are many successful examples of city–society partnerships running community centres locally: Mount Pleasant, Britannia, Trout Lake. The list goes on.

But apparently Coquitlam has a new registration system, which is really important to the residents of Coquitlam that absolutely must be implemented in all of Coquitlam’s community centres.

When a city councillor was asked if any of these hybrid models were investigated by staff, or, if the idea of simply putting a city staff person alongside current Place Maillardville staff so that they can manage the cutting edge registration system, the answer to both those questions was “No, those options were not considered.”

Not considered?! Let's get this straight.

One of the most celebrated community centres in not only our city, not only in our region and but in the entire the suburban Lower Mainland is utilizing 40 years of tens of millions of tax dollars to develop a nuanced, place-specific, need-specific community centre of social services for local families which is now going to be cancelled because of a registration system?

Think about the trust and collaboration that has been slowly and painstakingly developed over that 40 years between residents, community stakeholders, local schools and their principals, PACs, secretaries, counsellors, teachers, kids, volunteers and staff.

Does the city have any idea how much money this will cost to replicate? Or, what the cost to local families will be as a result?

So far, the answer is no.

Council seems to believe that the city can simply walk in and provide equivalent programs.

Here's an example of why they can’t.

When I first started working at the centre, one of the local schools was getting the same kind of after-school/drop-in from the City of Coquitlam.

Place Maillardville and city programs ran in parallel.

I was told the city program struggled to get more than six kids registered. Place Maillardville registered sometimes as many as 80, from my memory, in a school of 200. That’s 40 per cent of a school in an after-school program.

Why? Two reasons: One, Place Maillardville programs were cheaper. They received special funding from United Way that the city does not have access to. And secondly, because staff often volunteered their time to get to personally know the secretary, the principal, the counsellor and sometimes teachers to help identify the most in-need kids, the actual programs that would interest them, and then, here’s the kicker, Place Maillardville registered kids at the school, on site, for each season of the year.

Parents lined up out the door on registration day.

Staff/volunteers would fill out the forms for non-English speaking families, if necessary, and walk the lines getting to know parents while they waited.

As a result of those conversations, otherwise frantic two-parent income families provided community feedback as to their needs, made a friend and learned about all kinds of other programs at the centre. If you want to know how much that would cost for the city to run, hire an accountant.

Those kids at that after-school program would soon come to the centre for either summer camp or youth drop-in. The programs in the community and in the centre were intertwined and self-supporting.

Summer camps there have traditionally been some of the hottest in the region as parents and kids appreciate the programs being run by their already trusted and beloved after-school staff.

In addition, the years of community development and mentoring programs have created a truly marvelous cultural quirk of the organization.

The close bonds developed by long-time serving staff has attracted the once-young kids to help out in the programs once they are too old to attend any longer.

Sometimes, there is more interest in kids being helpers than actual participants. They clamour for responsibility by helping clean, lead programs and play with the younger kids. An entire mentorship program structure was born where the young learn to be like the old, and the old learn new levels of responsibility by looking after the young.

This is a truly inter-generational culture which builds on a sense of place and connection you will struggle to find in any neighbourhood in the region.

Kids grow up in these programs and become volunteers helping run them. Then from volunteers, they become program staff. After that, potentially, management.

I hear that there are nearly 150 volunteers in this tiny neighbourhood community centre. Rumour has it nearly 10 staff are former kids, and one kid that I remember from 15 years ago who joined the Place Maillardville after-school program instead of the city program is today its program coordinator.

You will need more than one accountant and a very big calculator if you want to figure out the cost of replicating that by a large bureaucratic institution.

I understand the society in Place Maillardville will shoulder on if they loose their building. Every indication points to a stoic dedication to support the City of Coquitlam.

But, that doesn’t address the real cost of this decision.

Here’s what breaks my heart.

It all has to do with Place Maillardville's youth drop-in. When the city helped create Societe Place Maillardville Society in 2005, they hired an amazing executive director.

The community had just suffered more than a decade of local gang activity and community distrust of youth was high. Graffiti was rampant. Vandalism was everywhere. If you think things are bad in the neighbourhood now, know it was worse then. However, a bold decision was made by this executive director that changed community building in Maillardville forever.

He invited kids inside.

There was no policy. There was no program. There was no PASS system registration. There wasn’t really even any kids equipment — only a pool table, really, and a mature caring adult. That was more than enough.

Over the coming weeks and months, kids began to slowly feel welcome coming in the centre rather than sneaking around outside breaking things out of boredom.

Vandalism on this city-owned building dropped by 97 per cent. No security required.

The same effect began taking hold all through the neighbourhood. Staff were slowly hired off of piecemeal, scraped-together funding and Place Maillardville’s youth drop-in program was born.

Vandalism dropped to zero. Over the next seven years attendance rose from four kids a day to what I understand is now a pre-pandemic high of 50 kids. A day. No promotions. No advertising money. No security. Just staff and volunteers that are in many cases dedicated for life.

They get to know the kids, design the programs around them. No guess work. No wasted tax dollars. No advertising. Just relationships. From the community, for the community. And the City of Coquitlam, in their wisdom, started investing resources in developing this drop-in initiative. Good things were done. If you live in Maillardville today and you appreciate the improvement of safety felt by walking the streets at night, you can thank that executive director for simply caring about a kid and welcoming him in the door.

That first kid reached out to me recently and told me that place saved his life. I believe him.

Today he is raising a family in his native territory with new levels of emotional and financial stability and reconnecting with long lost roots, family and culture.

Such a beautiful guy. He was always so good hearted. But he walked a thin line while youth workers worried about him for many years. Not everyone ends up on the right side of that line.

I recently read an article about a kid I knew really well from the centre who didn’t end up on the right side of that line. It’s hard not to tear up just writing about it.

The article detailed how this kid was evading police while on parole and killed someone in a car crash. Speculation would indicate that this criminal behaviour was only the tip of a much larger and darker iceberg. Drugs, organized crime and prostitution are sometimes the only sources of solace for teenagers that don’t have anyone looking out for them.

If that was a Place Maillardville kid, you might ask, why would they have ever been so alone? That kid aged out. They were essentially asked to leave. The centre didn’t have space for ages over 15 in their drop-in programs. Not everyone wants to sign a registration form, enter an adult program or become a volunteer.

I wish that was the only kid I saw this happen to.

Unfortunately, it’s not. And, not all of them are alive today.

Next fall a new building was supposed to fix this.

Coquitlam, we have a community that isn’t asking for hand outs.

They just want the responsibility to manage their own affairs. And, our money appears to have been well spent developing their capacity to skilfully do so.

I have calculated that the City of Coquitlam has already invested just under $10 million in making Place Maillardville what it is today since every level of government funded its creation for the cultural and social well being of Maillardville.

Millions more of provincial and federal tax dollars have gone through non-government organizations on top of that. And we want to waste that funding? What a decrease to the quality of life in the neighbourhood. That is throwing babies out with the bath water. That’s like designing an iPhone jack to fail just so the customer has to buy a new one.

City staff are in most cases not the problem. I’ve found them to be good and decent people. The problem is cultural.

Maillardville’s unique francophone culture has birthed a beautiful social programming culture in Place Maillardville.

And while you can replicate staff hours, programs and online registration systems, you can’t replicate time. You can’t replicate trust. And dare I say it, you can’t replicate relationships. Community programs rely on relationships. These things are grown, not built.

And If you reset relationships, or betray them, no one volunteers for you and no one goes in your programs.

You then need to spend more money advertising to more people that don’t know you.

All you get is micky’d social services and a whole lot of wasted time, money and energy. There are cheap simple solutions that involve the same kinds of things we tell our children: Share. Cooperate. Problem solve. Discuss. And guess what? Those things are free.

A hybrid model where the city and the society share the building solves everything. Contact your local city councillors to discuss.

- Darcy McNeil, Courtenay