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Introduction: Focus on the Forks

by Richard Stuart

The Forks and the Battle of Seven Oaks in Manitoba History
Edited by Robert Coutts and Richard Stuart
Manitoba Historical Society, 1994. ISBN 0-921950-12-8

In April 1991, the Manitoba Historical Society, Parks Canada and the University of Manitoba sponsored a symposium, “Focus on the Forks: A Day of Historical Vignettes” with the assistance of the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature and James Richardson and Sons.

Ten presenters shared the results of their research, experience and their ideas about the heritage of the Forks with over 100 participants, first over breakfast at the Forks Market then at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature Planetarium. Five of their presentations are included here.

The genesis of the symposium was a debate among Winnipeggers during the winter of 1990-1991 over what the Forks meant to the city. It was already apparent that it filled a huge need in the city, giving Winnipeg the central meeting place it never had before. The question at the end of the first stage of the Fork’s development was whether this was to remain something special, retaining the character suddenly revealed at the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine by the recent removal of the CN East Yards, or whether it would become another shopping area.

The first phase of the Forks Market was greeted with enthusiasm, with the commercial development of the Johnson Terminal and the move of the Children’s Museum to the B & B Building to follow. The Riverside Walkway connecting Stephen Juba park and the Manitoba Legislature along the two rivers and the Market Plaza were also nearing completion. The Forks National Historic Site on the northwest junction of the rivers, which had officially opened in 1989 and the annual Public Archaeology program had both proven themselves popular. Archaeological investigation showed what Winnipeggers were rediscovering: that the Forks had been a “Meeting Place” for 6000 years.

But which way was the Forks to go—to become another Exchange District, or worse a Portage Place—or to combine the commercial heritage and recreational in one unique spot? This led to the question of what the heritage of the Forks was. The word was used almost as a mantra whenever discussion of the future of the Forks touched on the conflict between commercial and residential use versus cultural. What was the heritage of this site? Why was it so important to Winnipeg, indeed to all of Canada, that it had been declared a National Historic Site?

Archaeology had demonstrated the importance of the site to Aboriginal peoples over the centuries and to the fur traders who brought it into contact with York Factory and Montreal. But what about those of us who were neither Aboriginal nor associated with the fur trade? What was its history, its heritage, over the past two centuries?

This was what the conference set out to explore through five sessions covering the setting, the peopling of the Forks, the continuity of Forks society, the pivotal immigration period and the place of the Forks in its wider community. What became obvious was that the significance of the Forks went far beyond the confluence of the Red and the Assiniboine. The site represented much of Western Canada’s history over the centuries and, as a “meeting place”, was open to the contribution of Aboriginal, long settled, and recently arrived Canadian communities.

It would be difficult to imagine discussing the heritage of the Forks without sampling it, which the symposium did over breakfast at the Forks Market. Alan Artibise opened the symposium by providing a stimulating overview of the setting of the Forks and its place in Winnipeg history. The participants and the presenters then adjourned to the Museum of Man and Nature for the rest of the day where they considered the rich heritage of the site.

The first panel covered the peopling of the Forks to 1870. Two of the papers are included here. Laura Peers spoke of the Ojibwa who were both immigrants who arrived in the Red River valley in the late eighteenth century and First Peoples, invited in by Assiniboine and Cree according to traditions going back millennia. But the next group of immigrants, who did not follow these tradi­tions, were white. The Ojibwa found themselves in an impossible position, in spite of Peguis’ statesmanship and his valuable assistance to the newcomers, even siding with the Hudson’s Bay Company against the Metis in1869. Their story was repeated over and over throughout Western Canada in the late nineteenth century. As Peers concluded, “Ojibwa history as manifested by these events at the Forks was a microcosm of Native history all across the prairies. Every historical force, every human and economic and political change which affected Native peoples seemed to radiate outward from the Forks.”

Patricia McCormack did an illustrated presentation on the contribution of the often overlooked Orkneymen and Cornelius Jaenen discussed the first whites at the Forks; the French. His presentation is included here. Jaenen reminds us that two members of La Verendrye’s party from Kaministiquia were the first Europeans to visit the Forks and that LaVerendrye himself saw the economic impor­tance to the continental fur trade of the junction of the two rivers on his way west in 1738. The French fact in Western Canada did not cease in 1760, in fact it took deep roots in the Red River Valley through the efforts of both francophone Catholic Metis and Quebecois voyageurs and settlers through the nineteenth century. But the promise of a bilingual province within which both white and Metis francophone communities would play an important role was lost in the late nineteenth century, as many Metis moved west and Quebec emigrants chose New England over Manitoba. Francophones dwindled to 10% of Manitoba’s population which made it difficult for newcomers who were absorbed into the Anglophone communities to realize their role as a founding people of Western Canada.

The second session approached “The Continuity of Forks Society” through papers by Diane Payment on “The Forgotten Families: Metis of the Forks after 1870”, Raoul McKay on “Native Education—A Tool for Spiritual Salvation and Cultural Progress” and Robert Coutts on “Colonialist Enterprise: The Hudson’s Bay Company at the Forks” which is included in this collection’. Coutts emphasizes the point made by others that the Forks had been an entrepot long before the region was drawn into the world economy in the nineteenth century. But it was the fur trade, in particular the Hudson’s Bay Company, which drew first the two Fort Garrys and then the city of Winnipeg from the Forks. The company located its Upper Fort, warehouses, an experimental farm and later a grist mill near the water transportation system the Forks provided. It attempted to make the transition from fur trade monopoly to urban land speculator in the 1870s, hoping to profit from its control of much of the land at the junction of the two rivers. But the centre of the new city of Winnipeg began several blocks north to the benefit of local entrepreneurs, not the old monopoly. Although it continued to play an important part in Winnipeg’s commercial and industrial development, as Coutts writes, “with the transfer of Rupert’s Land to Canada in 1869, the company had effectively played out its part at the Forks. The later dismantling of Upper Fort Garry ... served as the most poignant symbol of this denouement.”

In the afternoon, participants returned to Randy Rostecki’s lively presentation which provided the chronology of the Forks’ development after 1870 through maps, photographs and illustrations. His talk, “From Backwater to Park—the Forks in Relation to Downtown Winnipeg” traced the evolution of the area in a historical process which led from obscurity through infamy to its contemporary glory in twenty-seven illustrations.

The final session was a panel discussion on “The Community and the Forks”, on how to draw public benefit from the heritage the Forks represents. Two of the panelists were educators. Dr. Jean Friesen of the University of Manitoba brought both her academic qualifications and community experience as a director of the Forks Development Corporation between 1986 and 1988. Linda McDowell has worked for the Education Resources Centre of Winnipeg School Division No.1 and addressed the use of the heritage values the Forks represents in secondary education. The third panelist, Thora Cartlidge brought a uniquely comparative perspective, having worked both on the Forks project in its early stages and the St. Anthony’s Falls Project in Minneapolis. She addressed the question of the compatibility of the very different approaches of educators and developers, comparing the ongoing philosophical debate between these in the two cities. She also highlighted several feature of the Minneapolis project which Winnipeggers committed to the commemoration of the Forks’ heritage might profitably ponder: the advocacy role played by the Minnesota Historical Society; state legislation benefitting those willing to preserve built heritage; broadly based Board representation which takes in industry, business, recreational and preservation interests to “integrate all the diversity inherent in an inherently urbanized setting”; a strong emphasis on interpretation; and integration with state and federal heritage efforts.

I would like to thank Alan Artibise, Jean Friesen and Rosemary Malaher for their invaluable help in organizing the “Focus on the Forks” symposium in 1991 and for their contributions to the debate.

Page revised: 18 December 2011

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