Come winter at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers—known as The Forks—the sound of laughter, stones on stones and blades on ice carries up in the cold air as teams in thick, colourful sweaters square off in a curling bonspiel and others begin their gliding journey down the world’s longest naturally frozen skating trail. The Forks is now home to a Market, the Manitoba Theatre for Young People and the Manitoba Children’s Museum (currently under construction.) This is a meeting place older than Canada. First Nations used to gather here amongst themselves and later, during the fur trade, with the settlers who built their shelter and trading post and called it Fort Garry. The two rivers formed a crossroads of trade and Aboriginal, English and Métis influences that have shaped Winnipeg, MB, to this day This crossroads became known as the “Gateway to the Canadian West,” where so many immigrants to Canada passed through the two immigration stations and headed further across the Prairies. Here was where the railway was extended so that the Northwest Mounted Police could put a Métis rebellion down. And here, from the turn of the century through the thirties, this remarkable city at the very heart of the North American continent built railways with the expectation of shipping grain and goods everywhere, and broad avenues that foretold a busy, prosperous future with names like “Portage” that remembered Winnipeg’s voyageur past.
The bustling future the city’s forefathers anticipated did not happen—or at least not on the Chicagoan scale they had imagined. Now the 150 heritage buildings of the Exchange District (walking tours are available), with their stately frills and ornaments, stand as grandfatherly reminders not just of what Winnipeggers intended, but also as a testament to new and unexpected urban outcomes. Here is a city that has been compared to Brooklyn and to Seattle (USA); where artists and the young can afford to work and do the imagining—and the creating—that makes a city vibrant and singular. The refurbished warehouses, along streets so handsome they are often used for movie sets, are home to artists’ and jewellers’ galleries (such as Hilary Druxman), studios, theatres, fine restaurants like Peasant Cookery, as well as fashion boutiques and vintage clothing shops that accommodate a history that quietly refuses to be put out of view.
The old and the new dance hand-in-hand in this city. In the Exchange District, the glimmering steel-and-glass prize-winning Cube, an outdoor performance venue, sits like an alien-landed spaceship amid the venerable buildings of Old Market Square. In Osborne Village, restaurateurs such as Chris Foguere of Fude Inspired Cuisine and Wine Bar breathe new life into a street of a revived retro neighbourhood. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, rising at The Forks (due to be finished in 2012), will soon add its moving story, the past and present intermingling. And on Portage Ave., opposite the Hudson’s Bay store (the company of fur traders that was Canada for so long)—is the new Buhler Centre, a gleaming white sheath of a building that houses the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art.
Always, there is the Aboriginal and Métis presence in permanent fixtures such as the Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art gallery. Across the river, you will find the cemetery at Saint-Boniface Cathedral where Louis Riel, perhaps the most famous Métis of all, was buried in 1885. Riel was hanged for his role as leader of the Red River Rebellion, but he is now considered a Father of Manitoban Confederation. It is here the thriving Manito Ahbee Festival, its attendant powwow, the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards and the Winnipeg Aboriginal Film Festival showcase the thriving richness of Aboriginal cultural life from all over ‘Turtle Island’ (another name for North America.) It is here, too, in February, when the Festival du Voyageur takes over the city, the rivers and The Forks, these historical site doing what it has been doing for six thousand years—hosting human life and enterprise over and over again.