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Manitoba: The collective active will of the people

H. Sanford Riley

Last fall, I had the opportunity to host a number of friends of mine from other parts of the country for a three-day visit to Winnipeg. 

The trip was supposed to start out with a visit to Churchill to see the polar bears. My wife Debbie and I had gone north in the fall of 2020 during a short break in the COVID lockdowns and raved about it when we got back. I suggested to our friends that if they were going to visit Churchill, they should stop in Winnipeg to see a number of the new attractions in our city. I suggested that it would really round out their northern experience and help them to understand our country.

As the date for their visit approached, the trip north fell away but everybody insisted on coming to Winnipeg anyway because our city had received a lot of publicity about our new cultural and historical attractions. They wanted to see what was happening!

For me, it was a revelation to see how they reacted to what our community has built over the last 20 years. Through their eyes, I realized the admiration people have for the commitment to community that exists in Winnipeg is something that we often take for granted.

I have often talked about Winnipeg being the collective act of will of our people. By that, I mean that there is no inherent reason for us to exist as a significant Canadian city with so many remarkable community assets except for the fact that the people who came and lived here wanted it to be a better place. It was their vision and their individual efforts that have allowed Winnipeg to punch well above its weight. Successive generations of Manitobans have all, in one way or another, created things which advanced the quality of life in our city dramatically.

For my generation, it has primarily been the development of a number of remarkable new public assets which, when viewed together, tell the history of Canada’s north and west from a wide number of perspectives.

We started at Assiniboine Park, where we spent the morning at the Journey to Churchill with polar bears, seals, muskox, caribou, and other northern animals. We then visited the Leo Moll Garden, the Ivan Eyre Gallery at the Pavilion and finished at The Leaf at Canada’s Diversity Gardens, a visually stunning showcase of our diversity—expressed through the plants that shape our lives—which opens this fall.

Next on the agenda was the Winnipeg Art Gallery to see Qaumajuq, the remarkable new home for the largest Inuit art collection in the world. Here we saw, through the art which they produce, how Indigenous people of the north lived off the land and in community with nature.

Then it was off to the Manitoba Museum to learn what happened after Europeans first came into contact with our Indigenous peoples. The museum has some wonderful new exhibits which tell the story of our First Nations, the treaties they entered into and the history of the Métis nation. Highlights included the Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade collection and the life-sized replica of the Nonsuch, the tiny ship which brought the first HBC traders to Hudson’s Bay 350 years ago.

Finally, we spent a morning at the Canada’s Museum for Human Rights. We could have spent several days looking at every exhibit but we chose to focus our attention on the stories of our Indigenous peoples and their efforts to assert their human rights.

Another unique exhibit has opened since we did our tour, the Royal Western Canadian Aviation Museum. It tells the story of opening up the north during the early part of the 20th century

Interspersed with these visits, we met with a number of Manitoba’s most knowledgeable Indigenous leaders to hear first-hand the histories of their communities. My friends had not had much exposure to our Indigenous peoples and the program we organized was an eye-opener for them.

At a time when many Canadians, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, want to learn more about their Indigenous neighbours, I realized we in Winnipeg have a unique opportunity to play a significant role. Not only can we help in the transfer of knowledge to facilitate reconciliation, there’s also a significant economic opportunity for our entire community. The assets we have are world-class, unique and tell a story that people want to hear. More importantly, many in our Indigenous communities are great storytellers and keepers of untold knowledge which should be shared with other Canadians. It’s time for us to capitalize on this.

My friends’ visit gave me an enormous sense of pride and satisfaction in what has been achieved in Winnipeg during my lifetime. More importantly, it confirmed that we have an opportunity to be bridge builders in Canada because our special community assets allow us to showcase important parts of our national history.

About the author

H. Sanford Riley

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