With around 700,000 inhabitants, WINNIPEG accounts for more than half of Manitoba’s population, and lies at Canada’s centre, sandwiched between the US border to the south and the infertile Canadian Shield to the north and east. The city has been the gateway to the prairies since 1873, and a major transcontinental hub when the railroad arrived twelve years later. From the very beginning, Winnipeg was described as the city where “the West began”, and it still has something of that gateway feel. Certainly, Winnipeg makes for an enjoyable stopover, with all the main attractions an easy walk from each other: the Forks, a riverside development of shops, cafés and attractions buzzes with tourists and locals alike in the summer; the Manitoba Museum explores the history of the province with engaging reconstructions and dioramas; the happening Exchange District features good examples of Canada’s early twentieth-century architecture; the Winnipeg Art Gallery has the world’s largest Inuit art collection; and, just across the Red River, the suburb of St Boniface has a delightful museum in the house and chapel of the Grey Nuns, who canoed here from Montréal in 1844. Winnipeg is also noted for its excellent, varied restaurants and its flourishing performing-arts scene and even makes a useful base for day-trips to the pioneer sites, beaches and canoeing in southeastern Manitoba.
A brief history
Named after the Cree word for murky water (“win-nipuy”), Winnipeg owes much of its history to the Red and Assiniboine rivers, which meet close to the city centre at The Forks. Fort Rouge was founded nearby in 1738 by the first European in the area – Pierre Gaultier, who built a chain of fur-trading posts to extend French influence west – and prospered from good connections north to Lake Winnipeg and the Hudson Bay, and west across the plains along the Assiniboine.
After the defeat of New France in 1763, local trading was absorbed by the Montréal-based North West Company (NWC), which came to dominate the fur trade at the expense of the rival Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) – until Thomas Douglas, the Earl of Selkirk, bought a controlling interest in the HBC in 1809 and improved the business. Douglas resettled many of his own impoverished Scottish crofters around The Forks, buying from his own company a huge tract of farmland, which he named the Red River Colony, or Assiniboia. In 1821 the rival companies amalgamated under the “Hudson’s Bay Company”. For the next thirty years, the colony sustained an economic structure that suited both farmers and the Métis hunters, and trade routes were established along the Red River to Minnesota. But in the 1860s this collapsed with the decline of buffalo herds, and the Métis faced extreme hardship while the Hudson’s Bay Company lost effective territorial control.
At this time, politicians in eastern Canada agreed the federal union of 1867, opening the way for the transfer of the Red River from British to Canadian control. The Métis majority – roughly six thousand compared to some one thousand – were fearful of the consequences and their resistance took shape around Louis Riel, under whose impetuous leadership they captured the HBC’s Upper Fort Garry and created a provisional government without challenging the crown’s sovereignty. A delegation went to Ottawa to negotiate terms of admission into the Dominion, but their efforts were handicapped when the Métis executed an English settler from Ontario, Thomas Scott. The subsequent furore pushed prime minister John A. Macdonald into dispatching a military force to restore “law and order”; still, the Manitoba Act of 1870, which brought the Red River into the Dominion, acceded to many Métis demands and guaranteed the preservation of the French culture and language – although in practice little was done.
The eclipse of the Métis and the security of Winnipeg – as it became in 1870 – were both assured when the Canadian Pacific Railway routed its transcontinental line through The Forks in 1885. With the town handling the expanding grain trade and local industries supplying the vast rural hinterland, its population was swelled by thousands of immigrants, particularly from Ukraine, Germany and Poland, who were attracted by the promise of the fertile soils. Around this time the city began to develop a clear pattern of residential segregation, with leafy prosperous suburbs to the south along the Assiniboine River, and “Shanty Town” to the north. By World War I, Winnipeg had become Canada’s third-largest city and the largest grain-producing centre in North America. Since then, the development of other prairie cities, such as Regina and Saskatoon, has lessened Winnipeg’s pre-eminence, but it’s still central Canada’s transport hub.Read More
Festival du Voyageur Ten days in Feb w festivalvoyageur.mb.ca. St Boniface’s French-Canadian heritage is honoured annually in the Festival du Voyageur, ten days of February fun, whose events lead up to a torchlit procession and the Governor’s Ball, where everyone dresses in period costume.
Winnipeg International Jazz Festival Late June w jazzwinnipeg.com. The biggest of Winnipeg’s ambitious summer programme of open-air concerts is this nine-day jazz festival.
Winnipeg Folk Festival Early July w winnipegfolkfestival.ca. A three-day extravaganza featuring over a hundred concerts, held at Birds Hill Provincial Park, 25km northeast of the city.
Winnipeg Fringe Festival Late July w winnipegfringe.com. A ten-day event of theatrical productions, held in the Exchange District.
Folklorama Mid-Aug w folklorama.ca. Apart from the music festivals, the biggest festival in Manitoba celebrates Winnipeg’s multiethnic population. The festival has over forty pavilions spread across town, each devoted to a particular country or region.
You can find a good selection of self-guided walking, cycling, driving and paddling tours to print out at the website of Routes on the Red (w routesonthered.ca), a local nonprofit marketing organization. They cover both central and the wider Winnipeg area and their leaflets can also be picked up at the Forks’ Manitoba Travel Centre. But Winnipeg also has a good selection of commercial river and walking tours.
Heartland Tours t 204 989 9630, w heartlandtravel.ca. Interesting and offbeat tours of Winnipeg look at its rock’n’roll era, its dance hall history, hauntings and, most rewarding of all, a look at the hidden meanings of the architecture of the Legislative Building by an author of a best-seller on the subject.
Historic Exchange District Walking Tours t 204 942 6716, w exchangedistrict.org. Interesting guided tours of the Exchange District leave from the Old Market Square between June and late August. The choice is between standard ninety-minute district tours and themed 45-minute offerings, but timetables vary and you need to book in advance by phone.
Muddy Water Tours t 204 898 4678, w muddywatertours.ca. Self-proclaimed “dark tourism specialists”, and certainly off-beat, Muddy Waters offers several theatrical, historically themed tours for kids (times vary; $3) and a twilight haunted tour for all (June–Sept Thurs; Oct Mon & Thurs 7pm; $46) that takes three hours and includes attempts to communicate with the dead.
Paddlewheel River Boats t 204 942 4500, w paddlewheelcruises.com. May–Oct daily (1pm; $19) sightseeing boat trips and dinner and dance cruises leave from the dock at the end of Alexander Avenue on the banks of the Red River. A historic fort cruise (May–Aug Wed–Fri 9am–4.30pm; $31) takes you to Lower Fort Garry and back; one of the fleet is a replica paddlewheel vessel.
Parks Canada Walking Tours t 204 983 6757, w parkscanada.ca/forks. A “6000 Years in 60 Minutes” walking tour (July–Aug Sat & Sun 11am & 2pm 10am; $4) uses costumed guides to tell six thousand years of history in an hour and offers a geocaching kit to help you unearth the past for yourself ($6). For both enquire at the Explore Manitoba Centre.
Splash Dash t 204 783 6633, w splashdash.ca. This company offers river tours (every 15min: mid-May to mid-Oct daily 10am–sunset; 30min; $11) from a quay by The Forks; water buses ($3.50 one way) between eight different spots along the river; canoe rental (daily 10am–9pm; $18/hr or $40/day).