Winnipeg lies a frosty 700 miles north of the border, but sizzles with almost tropical warmth in its welcome. Why visit? Three answers: for the arts. For the eats. And to wander the unique neighborhoods. Plus, the intriguing history, far older than our own. Let’s get started at The Forks, where Winnipeg itself got started, first as the site of an Aboriginal sacred place (“our own Stonehenge”), then a fur trading post where two rivers met, and today a 50-acre festival destination to shop, soak up history, hike/skate/boat the waterways, catch performances, and—especially—eat at its vast indoor market.
The iconic bridge leading to St. Boniface, where the French first settled (still French-speaking today) is anchored by its venerable cathedral, which burnt down in 1972, except for its classic stone façade. Today there’s a modern church bearing amazing stained-glass windows honoring Native culture—a brown-skinned Virgin Mary wearing moccasins, for instance. Its cemetery hosts the much-visited tombstone of Louis Riel, a Metis (half French, half Native) priest-turned-lawyer who led the Red River Rebellion for Metis’ rights. He was later hanged for his part in the ruckus.
Osborne Village, separated by another bridge, is home to a galaxy of hip and happening boutiques and eateries. It’s hot. But the hottest ’hood in the city is also its oldest: downtown’s Exchange District, anchored by Market Square since 1875, when Winnipeg gained its rep as “the Chicago of the North” and railroads made it “the Gateway to the West.” Today, its red brick warehouses and stately former banks from its heyday of 1880 to 1920 are home to more than 50 unique restaurants, 60 unique shops, and the highest concentration of artists and galleries in the city, plus Innovation Alley, Winnipeg’s own Silicon Valley. Choose a walking tour (www.exchangedistrict.org) to suit your fancy: history, architecture, food, photography. It’s also host to Canada’s largest Fringe Festival.
Downtown’s Legislative Building, built during the nineteen-teens and topped by Golden Boy (aka the Roman god Mercury), was designed by a closet Freemason, a fact undiscovered until 2005 by a modern-day Dan Brown. Take a Hermetic Code tour to sleuth the use of significant numbers—five, 13—in counts of everything from steps to pillars, plus a couple of larger-than-life sphinxes hiding in plain sight.
Up the block stands the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a treasury of Old Masters and contemporary Canadians, but best-loved for its collection of Inuit (Native) sculptures and prints, the largest cache in the land. The museum has just broken ground on a vast new addition to house the Inuit collection.
Canada’s path to tolerance is traced in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights of 2014, housed in an iconic structure representing mountains built of local limestone reaching glass “clouds,” signifying a tower of hope. “The idea of the exhibits” that follow a spiral climb inside, explains Media Relations Manager Maureen Fitzhenry, “is to get people thinking and talking—to spark conversation, not to preach nor commemorate. The angles of multiple perspectives should change your point of view”—for instance, toward the hardship of refugees (from Sudan to American draft dodgers).
The Manitoba Museum explores the province’s history, from pre-Confederation days in the 1700s (when locals urged, “If the English don’t further the development here, the Yankees will,” and proceeded to strip Natives of their land and rights: familiar story). Once again we meet Louis Riel, who tried to legislate a Metis Provincial government, and the account of the Famine of 1870, when they were left to starve.
Go back earlier to skeletons of dinosaurs and prehistoric fossils embedded in the local stone. Then visit the Arctic region—displays of polar bears, sled dogs, Belugas, igloos; the wheat fields of the plains farmed by immigrating Ukrainians to feed the nation; and the Streets of Winnipeg, recreating the early days. The show-stopper is a life-sized replica of the sailing ship Nonesuch of 1668 (climb aboard to explore), which put the Hudson Bay Company on the map.
The amazing Assinoboine Park Zoo, centering a 11,000-acre park, places visitors up-close to the province’s northern animals, from rare white bisons to cougars; from Buddha-like snowy owls to stately elk and wily mountain goats. Nearby, a pair of Arctic tigers daintily broke ice to wade in a chilly pond. The climax is the Journey to Churchill exhibit, celebrating the polar bears of Manitoba’s northernmost outpost. Outdoors, three cubs and their elders range. Then watch the bears’ swimming antics from a glass tunnel as they plunge, twirl and tumble within inches of viewers, like kids at the beach. It’s almost ballet.
For the real deal, stop in at the Winnipeg Royal Ballet to view a class of these elite young dancers, then a rehearsal (“Swan Lake” on my visit). Folks can peek into the costume, mask and shoe workshops, too. — — –By Carla Waldemar, RFT Contributor
BONUS: All this sightseeing makes a person hungry! Be sure to read this article, too, in which Carla served up Winnipeg’s Winning Food scene.