Monday, May 28, 2007

How many 'birthplaces' does Winnipeg have?

[Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, Sunday May 27, 2007]
IT'S been discussed by insiders for months, and now the type of development that will occur at 100 Main St. has been decided by the city's downtown development committee.

There will be a historically themed park on the portion of the address on which Upper Fort Garry stood from the 1830s to 1980s. Next to the park, a new building will rise, though it will not be the 35-storey office/condo skyscraper that some were hoping to see tower over downtown. Instead, it will be a 15-storey apartment block that appears to be designed in a style that could aptly be termed Grant Avenue Moderne.

For a group called Friends of Upper Fort Garry, having no building at all would have been the best decision for 100 Main due to the site's historical significance, though hardly a word of this was heard through the years it sat drab and underused.

Today, people park their cars on the fort's site, but the Friends of Upper Fort Garry believe it would be wrong and short-sighted to allow people to actually live and shop there.

As ammunition for this agenda, Upper Fort Garry is being called the "birthplace of Winnipeg," which comes as a new revelation to this amateur local history buff. Just how many birthplaces does Winnipeg have?

The Forks is an obvious candidate, since the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers was ultimately the reason why what is now Winnipeg has been a centre of trade and transportation for thousands of years.
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Portage and Main is another. The intersection of the Portage and Fort Garry trails led to the first store being built there in 1862, becoming the nucleus of a city. Going back further, today's eastern portion of the Exchange District could also be considered the birthplace of Winnipeg, since it is where settlers like Andrew McDermot and Robert Logan endeavoured in free-market trade in the years before commerce moved over to Portage and Main.

Historians also consider Point Douglas to be the city's birthplace, since Fort Douglas -- built in 1813 at what is now the foot of Galt Avenue -- was the centre of activity for the Selkirk settlers who arrived the year before to establish the first agricultural settlement in Western Canada.

Many other locales in downtown Winnipeg, St. Boniface, and elsewhere up and down the rivers, are extremely historically significant. Should development not happen at these places either?

While the proximity to Upper Fort Garry was a key factor in the future city being at Portage and Main, it would be inaccurate for the fort to be considered its birthplace. Indeed, until 1849, the Hudson's Bay Co. at Upper Fort Garry held a monopoly on all trade in the region, effectively limiting growth in the Red River settlement. No sooner had the monopoly been broken, than the number of enterprising settlers and traders briskly grew.

In 1872, the Hudson's Bay Co. was staunchly opposed to the founding of the city, and used their influence in the legislature to delay the incorporation process by a year. (Owning a third of the taxable land within the proposed city boundaries, they were not keen to pay new municipal property taxes on it.)

After the city was finally incorporated in 1873, it proved to be of certain benefit to HBC, and huge profits were made by subdividing and selling off their valuable land south of Notre Dame Avenue -- including the site where Upper Fort Garry stood, which in the 1880s HBC gradually demolished.

Because Upper Fort Garry was a historical seat of government, most famously for Riel's provisional government of 1869-70, it could be argued that it is the political birthplace of Manitoba. It is certainly not the birthplace of Winnipeg, though. Cities are borne of a concentration of people, ideas and exchange -- not politics. The more concentration, ideas and exchange are allowed to occur, the more the city grows.

The same is as true today as it was in the 19th century. While another modernist apartment building downtown is unlikely to be a catalyst for further revitalization, it will show that we are still willing to make our history while we preserve it, and years after the city's birth, Winnipeg is still willing to grow up.


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