Located in the middle of southern Canada, or roughly smack in the middle of North America, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba is a historic crossroads and a city of extremes.
Flat as a pancake, Winnipeggers swim (or boat) through hot summers and skate through their remarkably cold winters. To say ice hockey is popular in Winnipeg is a gross understatement. When their professional Jets team finally returned the allotted season tickets sold out in record time.
Yet Winnipeg’s story is much deeper. Home to plains First Nations for thousands of years, the indigenous community remains among the largest in North America.
Since contact with Europeans, Manitoba’s strategic location at the meeting of the Assiniboine and Red rivers has drawn important waves of migrants from the north, south and east – many continuing west with the establishment of Canada’s transcontinental railroads.
From the north came fur traders. North America’s first corporation – the Hudson’s Bay Company – is such a complicated story of trade, exploitation and geopolitics it is a field of study unto itself. Suffice to say the Manitoba features a bison (North American buffalo) on its provincial flag.
As hunters moved into the region, the Metis (mixed Indiginous / European) emerged as a people and distinct culture. Under the leadership Louis Real (now acknowledged as Manitoba’s first Premier), the Metis actually rose against the nascent Canadian Government.
Manitoba’s license plate slogan is simply; “Friendly Manitoba.” We sometimes joke they have nothing else to brag about, but there is, in fact a deeper historic tradition of welcoming immigrants that echoes this simple claim.
In addition to First Nations and Metis, Winnipeg and southern Manitoba received Scottish Highlanders (cleared from their native lands), French Canadians (French is still widely spoken), many germanic peoples – including Mennonites and Hutterites, English, Irish, Ukrainians, a sizeable Jewish community and a more recent Filipino population. There may be up to 100 languages spoken across the province. Although isolated, Winnipeg is an international microcosm.
Further north, Gimli, Manitoba boasts the largest Icelandic community outside of Iceland. The town is a tourist destination but is known internationally as the home of Crown Royal rye whisky (or whiskey). Indeed in 2015 their Northern Harvest was declared the “World’s Best” whisky. I’ll need to continue sampling before passing judgement :).
Winnipeg’s economy has historically been driven by trade, hunting, agriculture and services. Important aerospace manufacturing and broadcasting also remain prominent. Although the city has not experienced the rapid oil booms as seen in Edmonton and Calgary, it has not had to overcome the inevitable bust that accompanies such product booms. Winnipeg’s nearly 800,000 inhabitants appear to work in one of the countries most diversified economic environments.
The mining boom in the Canadian shield has brought attention to Manitoba. So many of the ‘Ice-road Truckers’ live in Manitoba and when the thousands of lakes to the north and east freeze, industry gets to work.
Tourists enjoy Winnipeg for its sandstone architecture – including the temple-inspired Legislative building, its sports, music scene and, of course, for polar bears. The Winnipeg zoo (Assiniboine Park) is an excellent place to see rescue bears swimming and playing. This is a ‘must-see before travelling up to the small port of Churchill. Click here for Churchill.
Bears spend their summers on the tundra, waiting for ice on Hudson’s Bay, where they can hunt for delicious seal. Polar bears are not vegetarian.
Eat bison, pirogies, pickerel (walleye) and rich French Canadian food. Drink whiskey and then try to sleep in one of the haunted rooms in the Fort Garry hotel!
On the streets, listen for First Nations’ languages being spoken and definitely go to a local pub when the Jets are playing hockey!
Try not to become to anxious as you walk past the headquarters of Revenue Canada (the tax office), but do ask for souvenirs at the Royal Canadian Mint.
Due to this interesting cultural mix as well as Winnipeg’s central, yet relatively isolated location, the city was an excellent choice for the establishment of the Canadian Human Rights Museum.
Ostensibly us Canadians take human rights seriously, but it is important to move far beyond lip-service to actual conversation … and action. Click here for details on the museum.
The Forks area – where the rivers meet – is the heart and soul of the city. Most of the sites worth visiting are in this area and can be done on foot. I am very impressed by the Inn at the Forks hotel – the restaurant is also excellent.
During the long, cold winter months, join Winnipeggers skating – and even dining – on their frozen rivers. Despite hot, humid summers, Winnipeg is the coldest city on earth with more than 700k inhabitants. The almost perennial blue sky helps enormously.
It has been a few years since my last visit to Manitoba. On this tour I have been so impressed by the sites and activities, I am actually planning a trip back with my family!