Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Two Big Surprises
The Canadian Human Rights Museum & The Journey to Churchill
Winnipeg, Manitoba’s two big attractions opened in 2014 and both have been huge successes!
By Max Hartshorne,
My journey in February to windy, chilly, altogether normal for winter in these parts Winnipeg had many highlights. I visited two tremendous new tourist attractions that have changed the game for Winnipeg. I got a chance to ice skate on the city’s two rivers at the famous First Nations meeting place known as the Forks.
The Forks is the heart of this city of one million, it’s where the beloved Winnipeg Jets do a yearly outdoor practice on the Red River, and where hundreds of musical and cultural festivals, concerts and other gatherings take place. People take full advantage of the relatively short warm months to enjoy as much time as they can on these free-flowing rivers.
In 2014, two monumental attractions were unveiled after a long construction period. As Clare MacKay, who does the marketing for The Forks, and I skated on the Red River in a windy minus 10F temperature, she spoke of what a profound effect the opening of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights will have on the city.
It’s impressive price tag of $341 million is a serious investment, and it is the first national museum ever built outside the National Capital Region. With its largest gallery devoted to Canada’s own human rights journey, the interactive exhibits resonate with homies and visitors alike.
Alabaster, Glass and a Tower
Maureen Fitzhenry gave me a tour of the construction site of the museum before it officially opened, which is circular yet blocky, and very modern with a 100 meter tall Tower of Hope at the top. Visitors enter through concrete roots, then walk along backlit alabaster ramps as they traverse the various digital and multi-media exhibits that focus on human rights all over the world. The museum uses text, objects, art, performance and first-hand storytelling to express the full range of issues around human rights.
Israel Asper, a local media mogul, had the dream to build this high-priced Museum of Human Rights when he was inspired by what he saw at the Holocaust museum in Washington DC. But he wanted to encompass more than just this piece of history–he wanted an overarching museum in support for all human’s rights.
To get the massive funding, the holocaust was mixed with many other human rights issues and they are all on display in this large new museum.
The structure is wrapped up in a glass ‘cloud’ comprised of 1300 individual pieces of glazing. Even with its eye-popping architecture, by famous American architect Antoine Predock, it’s a LEED silver-standard building with truly green bona fides everywhere.
One area showcases hundreds of people’s personal stories in their own words. Another provides up to the minute news bulletins about human rights challenged areas in the world today.
Other rooms focus on the Holocaust in Europe, and lots of attention is paid to the tribulations of America, Canada and other countries treatment of aboriginal peoples.
Journey to the Polar Bears
In June, another big attraction opened in the city that will bring thousands of visitors to Winnipeg. It’s called Journey To Churchill.
At the Assiniboine Park Zoo, workers constructed a ten-acre state of the art polar bear habitat, with interactive exhibits that re-creates the experience people have in Churchill, a small village far north on Hudson Bay.
Polar bear habitats were built to house four of the big carnivores, and there are other buildings resembling those found up north just like what you’d see if you made the long trek up north to Churchill, there’s even railroad cars that a visitor would see in this lonely outpost.
We toured the construction site with Rene Lanctot, the head zookeeper at the zoo. He said this was a very exciting time, and though he is close to retirement age, there is no way he’s leaving any time soon!
At the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, there are already many exhibits and you can meet the bears.
Clare Mackay said she loves how much actitity takes place in the Forks, ground that was chosen for the museum partly because it was once an ancient Indian meeting area, at the confluence of two major rivers the Red and the Assiniboine.
Today, with the bitter cold of winter in Canada, the Forks is a wide open shopping area with dozens of shops where tourists and locals make the most of winter, by putting on skates and gliding up and down the river.
There are skate rentals, only $2.50 per hour, and both hockey and figure skates available. A bio-diesel powered Zamboni cleans up the ice regularly, and additional water is sometimes spread on the ice to improve the surface for skating. One of MacKay’s associates skates from his up-river condo down to work in the morning!
Commuting by Water Bus
For 25 years these buildings stood vacant, it was the Johnson Terminal Railway storage facility. But now, 50 businesses–retail, food stores, cafes boutiques, and a children’s museum attract thousands of visitors. In the summer a water bus brings people from up and down the river to the Forks. Kayakers ply the waters though nobody yet rents kayaks here.
A good business opportunity for sure! More than 250 events take place here, the biggest by far is Canada Day, with 100,000 people crowding the river banks to celebrate with food booths and music.
Festival du Voyageurs
In the winter, the festival of the year in Winnipeg is the Festival du Voyageurs every February, which celebrates the foods, the music and the spirit of the bold Voyageurs who were the earliest settlers of Winnipeg. To share the Voyageur lore, visitors must partake of the Caribou, a drink of fortified wine served in a glass made entirely out of ice.
Other traditions in the tents of the Festival du Voyageurs is the sugar on snow, poured maple syrup that hardens in to candy when it is poured carefully out and wrapped in a stick.
A new tradition in Winnipeg this time of year is a pop-up restaurant called RAW that is built on the Assiniboine River. With a tent, heaters and some of the city’s best food, they serve three 40-person seatings per night, and were pretty much sold out for all nights. Clare told me that in Winnipeg, people take risks, and do bold things, like opening a pop-up restaurant on a river in the coldest month of winter. Others experiment with things like the water bus, and open businesses that are quirky and rebellious.
I sampled some of the city’s culture when I attended a fine production of Arthur Miller’s The Glass Menagerie at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. I came away impressed both with the quality of the acting and the sold-out audience on what felt to me like the coldest night of the year.
The culture vultures of Winnipeg love live theater and they have a Fringe Festival and two robust professional theaters that keeps them coming back all year long.
There are still a lot of wealthy people who support the arts in the city, even though the glory days in the 1920s saw more money come into Winnipeg than any other city in Canada. It was a boom town, and the buildings were built as grand as local ambition.
The Largest Aboriginal Population
Winnipeg is home to Canada’s largest urban aboriginal population so it’s a perfect place to site the human rights museum.
It’s also a city with a scary urban crime problem, though a few locals I spoke with said it was not something that confronts tourists in places like The Forks. One taxi driver said that it was common for drivers to be robbed at knifepoint, that’s why the cabs now have plastic barriers to protect the cabbies.
I felt safe walking around the St Boniface French-speaking neighborhood and in the downtown area. The intense cold meant that there were few homeless people camping out the way they do in Vancouver.
The Beard Growing Contest
One yearly tradition that takes place across the bridge from the center of Winnipeg in St. Boniface is the Beard Growing Competion, which brings a ragtag assortment of bearded men and fake-bearded women to the CCFM, the French Cultural Center.
Categories include how long a beard could be grown in 60 days, old beard styles, and decorated beards. A well-oiled crowd of revelers got a big kick out of seeing their bearded buddies take home a t-shirt and honors in various categories.
We sat in a tent listening to a woman singing and playing piano while Cody Chomiak told us how he almost never comes to this event during the day. “We all show up at night to hear the top bands,” he explained. He said that he is open about being gay and that people in the city are tolerant.
We sat at big tables and enjoyed the music and then went outside to get some voyageur flavor at Fort Gibraltar. Here, in a re-created fort overlooking the Assiniboine river, a re-enactor in full Voyageur costume including two guns showed us the fortifications and the cabins down below where craftsman make barrels, hammer knives, and weave in the tradition of their ancestors.
Young Music Fans
While at the festival, patrons wait in long lines to enjoy bison on bannock, caribou drinks and meat pies, we ate the same thing at the cozy Fort Gibraltar restaurant. This rustic yet luxurious venue is home to many weddings and anniversary parties for locals who love their Voyageur heritage.
When we returned to the Festival du Voyageurs in the evening, the mood was quite different. Even though the tents were all enlarged this year to accommodate the huge crowds, the band Royal Canoe was on the bill, and this created an epic line of fans waiting to get in.
They waited patiently, in minus 15 degree Farenheit cold, and once inside, many revelers climbed up on top of the tables, much to dismay of those behind them. A chance to see this Winnipeg band was worth every sweaty, crowded moment to the mostly younger crowd.
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted, and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and watching his grandchildren grow up.