Canada 150, Manitoba

On the long trek westward, some excerpts from “Manitoba On My Mind” are up next:

We stand in the covered porch of Dalnavert House (built for Hugh John Macdonald, only surviving son of Sir John A.), waiting for a torrential downpour to recede. It doesn’t, so we make a mad dash south in the direction of the Assiniboine River and the park on its banks where the 1920 beaux-arts Legislative Assembly sits in all its majesty. Rivulets of water are rushing down the sidewalks and across streets making puddles that stretch from curb to curb. The Assiniboine and the Red are once again overflowing their banks…Winnipeg is Cree for “muddy water.” Now we understand.

While we are looking up at the Legislative Asembly Building from the riverbank, the rain miraculously stops and the sun peeks out, bathing the 3,640-pound Golden Boy atop the dome in brilliant light. Our eyes shift to the ground in front of us–to the over-sized statue of a middle-aged man wearing a

a long coat, bow tie, and waistcoat…It is a statue of Louis Riel, the first of several such monuments we encounter throughout Winnipeg…While admiring this forceful image of one of Canada’s most famous and controversial figures, I think…about how passionate Manitobans (have) always been about their politics…When you gaze at the determined visage of Riel, mouth drawn tight, eyes narrow and penetrating, you are face to face with the very embodiment of this Manitoban passion. This is the face of a man who fought relentlessly to defend and promote the interests of his people…

Near the cathedral is the Saint Boniface Museum, the oldest building in Winnipeg. It was erected…for the Grey Nuns, the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, who arrived at the Red River in 1844 after a fifty-nine-day voyage by canoe. I spot a poem in a frame on the wall; it was written by John Greenleaf Whittier…

The voyageur smiles as he listens

To the sound that grows apace;

Well he knows the vespers ringing

Of the bells of St. Boniface…

Happy is he who heareth

The signal of his release

In the bells of the Holy City,

The chimes of eternal peace…

I strike out on my own to wander through St. Boniface…following the course of the Red, I pass through fields leading to Whittier Park, where there is a replica of Fort Gibraltar, built by the Northwest Company in 1810. I’m several hundred feet back from the river, because the forest along the bank is covered in a thick coating of mud that accumulated a short while ago, when the river was running even higher. The broad band of trees along the bank look like long, slender fingers digging into the icing on an undercooked chocolate cake…

I’m hurrying now, because I’m running late in getting to The Forks, the famous spot where the rivers meet…After the fort, the river bends sharply to the left, and there is a long, straight stretch running to the Esplanade Riel,

where an airy suspension bridge over the river provides a pedestrian crossing from the centre of St. Boniface to the Forks. I’m alternately walking and jogging to save time. But now swarms of mosquitoes attack me. They’re buzzing about my arms and ears like bucksaws cutting logs in the wilderness. I’m sweating profusely and I’m very thirsty. But then, at last, I hear a distant ringing, and it grows steadily louder and clearer. A smile lights my face. The bells of St. Boniface have signalled my release.

It’s at The Forks that we first encounter Winnipeg’s Aboriginal roots, for this has been the traditional meeting place of the First Nations for six thousand years…In the 1880s The Forks became a centre for the railways, and an industrial wasteland. Winnipeg residents had no access to it for a century. But in 1989 one of Canada’s most successful urban renewal projects was launched, reconnecting people with the waterfront, so that today this thirteen-acre parcel of land along the banks of the two rivers is once more Winnipeg’s principal gathering place…Some four million people per year visit The Forks, making it the city’s principal attraction. A Torontonian can only marvel at the speed and creativity with which the restoration was undertaken…

I am particularly taken by the Oodena Celebration Circle, in the heart of The Forks, the principal reminder of the Aboriginal origins of the area…the Oodena Celebration Circle is a stirring symbol of the spiritual strength of our Aboriginal heritage, and The Forks overall is a reminder of the First Nations’ pride of place in our early history. But the reality of Aboriginal life in Winnipeg today is much different…

Winnipeg has the highest proportion of Aboriginal people of any urban area in Canada…Large numbers have gravitated toward the city over the past two decades to escape the poverty of the reserves. But many have failed to find life in Winnipeg any better; perhaps it’s even worse given the discrimination they often face…

Another neighbourhood where First Nations congregate is Winnipeg’s North End, again a district where poverty is endemic. On Selkirk, we pas the tottering Merchants Hotel. It’s the “Pride of the North End,” the sign says. A door lies open to a room stacked full of empty beer bottles. Tough-looking young men dressed entirely in black are loitering at the corner, leaning against the hotel wall or squatting on the ground, eyeing us like hunters assessing unsuspecting game. Some shops on Selkirk are boarded up; others look like the last thing they expect is for someone to stop in and make a purchase.

At Pritchard and McGregor, we pass the Ukrainian Labour Temple, which was built at the end of the First World War…and has long served as a rallying centre for the trade union movement. It also has the distinction of having been raided by police during the famous Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. On the facade is a carving of hands clasped, reaching across the globe, and the words, “Workers of the World Unite.” For many years Winnipeg North was the constituency of the distinguished and much respected NDP Member of Parliament, Stanley Knowles, at one time the longest-serving member of the House. How far Winnipeg and the rest of Canada are from the socialist Nirvana his party once sought!..

Can we build the perfect society, one that will shine as brightly as the aurora borealis, visible in Churchill, Manitoba, for over 240 days per year? Or is this notion just an ephemeral dream?

The recipes for this chapter are for Bison Burgers and Low-Fat Fries.

To cover Canada in full, please order a copy of Roaming the Big Land: Flavours of Canada by going to: Autographed copies with personal messages are also available by contacting the author:

About t. a. keenleyside

author of travel/food books and popular fiction
This entry was posted in biography, Canada 150, Canadian travel, contemporary culture, family, family literature, First Nations, food literature, Louis Riel, Manitoba, Metis, recipes, The Forks, travel books, Winnipeg and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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