Manitoba History: Literary, Architectural, and Popular Approaches to the History of Winnipeg
by Jim Mochoruk
Even before Winnipeg had celebrated its first decade of existence Alexander Begg and Walter Nursey had already begun the process of telling the story of the city —and thirteen decades later there is no sign that the propensity for writing books on Winnipeg’s past is declining, as witnessed by the success of such recent works as Jim Blanchard’s Winnipeg, 1912 and David Arnason and Mahri Mackintosh (eds.) The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg. However, with only a few notable exceptions, ever since the spate of publications associated with Winnipeg’s centennial celebrations in 1974 and Alan Artibise’s 1977 contribution to the History of Canadian Cities series,  precious little attention has been paid to Winnipeg in the years following the Depression. Thus, it is refreshing to come across a number of works that deal almost exclusively with this more recent period of Winnipeg’s history.
At first glance the three works examined in this essay would seem to have little in common. The first, Russ Gourluck’s Going Downtown: A History of Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue, is patently a work of popular history on what he describes as the “golden age” (1930-1980) of Winnipeg’s retail and entertainment district. The second, Winnipeg Modern: Architecture 1945-1975, is a collection of essays that are primarily academic examinations of Winnipeg’s modernist “built environment” and the architects whose vision helped to transform the cityscape during this crucial thirty-year period. The third and final work under consideration, The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century, is a compilation of critical commentaries and literary pieces pertaining to, or emanating from, Winnipeg (in one way or another) in the middle of the twentieth century. But aside from the obvious sharing of a temporal framework, all three are also marked by a genuine and often unabashed affection for Winnipeg. Still, this is less important than their shared focus upon Winnipeg during a period of profound change: a time when the very shape and form of the city was being altered and when new social, intellectual, and economic trends were creating and recreating Winnipeg’s collective identity.
As might be expected though, the three books do not make equal contributions to our understanding of Winnipeg. While Russ Gourluck is a fine popular historian—as demonstrated by his award-winning, A Store Like No Other: Eaton’s of Winnipeg—one cannot help but feel that he has missed the mark somewhat with Going Downtown.
To begin with, almost from the very first page there are little editorial glitches which could and should have been cleared up in a more thorough line edit—for example, it is obvious that going from one draft to another some words that should have been deleted were not—and these glitches persist throughout the book. This, however, is but a mild irritant. It is the structure that Gourluck has chosen for writing Going Downtown that is far more problematic. After a strong start, with a Preface that proudly announced the author’s intention to celebrate the life and work of the people who made Winnipeg’s downtown such a vital place to be, and with an even stronger Prologue that does a fine job of explaining how and why Portage Avenue supplanted Main Street as the city’s primary retail location, the text becomes increasingly frustrating. Instead of following any sort of chronology, the author has decided to present the story of Portage Avenue in the form of a travelogue, running from east to west. In effect, each of the twelve chapters deals with a roughly one block stretch of the famous avenue—often progressing on a building-by-building basis. The result leaves the reader leaping through time, without enough context to help make sense of what are essentially disconnected vignettes of individual buildings and the history of their construction, renovation (and in many cases, destruction) as well as the story of their various inhabitants over a fifty to eighty year period. Even worse, some of these vignettes—especially for still existing businesses—read more like paid advertisements than history, popular or otherwise.
There is, of course, a story line of sorts in Going Downtown. Gourluck charts the rise, the glory days and the rather sad demise of Portage Avenue as the Mecca for Winnipeggers looking for both goods and a good time in a host of downtown locales. While the Prologue and Epilogue make a clear and reasonable case for this somewhat obvious thesis, the intervening material does not explore the social, economic, or cultural dynamics (at least in any sustained fashion) which produced this pattern.
All of this is not to say, however, that this book is without redeeming features. Some will be attracted to its (and yes, one has to use the obligatory descriptive here) “lavish” illustrations. Although these illustrations sometimes overwhelm the text and are poorly labeled in more than a few cases, they do give one a profound sense of the changes Portage Avenue has experienced over the course of the twentieth century. Moreover, many of these photos have not been seen before, as they have been drawn from an amazing variety of sources. Which brings one to the last, and perhaps most ironic strength of this book. Going Downtown, for all of its obvious intentions to serve as a piece of “popular history” will actually serve many people as a reference work of sorts. While it does not contain footnotes or any other form of citation for its sources of information—with the exception of the scrupulously compiled list of photo credits at the back of the book—Gourluck has produced an impressive catalogue of Portage Avenue’s main buildings. Indeed, he has clearly done considerable research—including a large number of informal and non-cited oral history interviews—into the businesses which occupied those buildings (Indeed, if he had made a bit more use of the interviews he conducted, Gourluck could also have made an important contribution to the social and business history of Winnipeg). There are times when he may well have told his readers far more than they wanted to know about the architectural merits of particular buildings, and their current designations as heritage buildings, but he has done a huge service for scholars and students who have an interest in Winnipeg’s physical evolution.
This brings one quite naturally to Keshavjee and Enns’ Winnipeg Modern. Unlike Gourluck’s work, which is consciously aimed at a fairly broad audience, this work could easily be overlooked by anyone who is not either an architect or an aficionado of design. Indeed, because this book project was linked to an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG), some have referred to it (erroneously) as a catalogue, but it is emphatically more than that. Every effort has been made—successfully I would say—to make this work both accessible and useful to a much broader readership. The prose is clear and free of all but the most necessary jargon, the illustrations, particularly in the photo essay “Living Modernism” by Tessler and Enns, are gorgeous and perfectly placed, while the overall layout of the book makes it very inviting—although it is so physically “heavy” that it is does remind one of a first year biology textbook when it is being lugged around in a backpack.
The editor’s introduction, by Serena Keshavjee, sets the tone for the entire volume—and it is an uncommonly good example of the sort of writing that can bridge the academic/popular divide. It sets the context for Winnipeg’s era of “modified modernism”—the late 1940s through to the late 1970s and early 1980s—by establishing key elements in the city’s earlier built environment and by outlining some of the demographic and economic changes which would call for the sustained building boom that was to be dominated by variations of modernist architecture. But this introduction also discusses the central intellectual tenets of modernist architecture, the dominant figures in Winnipeg’s architectural community and key aspects of the essays that are to follow. In this last regard, Keshavjee is to be given credit for not trying to sweep aside or paper over the disagreements concerning modernist architecture and its legacy in Winnipeg that clearly exist among the anthology’s contributors—which gives this collection a balanced feel.
For many non-specialist readers the essay which will have the strongest impact is David Burley’s “Winnipeg’s Landscape of Modernity, 1945-1975.” A well known social and urban historian, Burley has crafted a powerful chapter which manages to encapsulate Winnipeg’s pre-World War Two history, the spirit of modernism itself, the impact of modernist architecture in Winnipeg, and what he intimates was the ultimate failure of modernism to live up to its own promise of a more democratic and useful built environment for all the people of the city. This excellent piece serves as an almost cranky reminder of the problems inherent in many of the modernist projects that came to dominate the cityscape. As such it provides a cautionary note for those about to read the remaining essays, for these (perhaps understandably) are so caught up in the self-conscious goal of celebrating the singular architectural achievements of Winnipeg’s modernist era, and protecting and preserving the resulting structures, that one can easily forget that there was a price to be paid for accepting a modernist vision.
Relying largely upon newspaper sources, Burley balances the boosterism of the architects, business people and government officials of the period 1945-75 with an account of what large-scale urban renewal meant in the realm of residential housing and “slum clearance” in the older and poorer parts of the city. His conclusion on what the modernist project did to Winnipeg’s working poor and the socially disadvantaged is a sad, but essential, reminder of how the best of intentions can go so badly awry. Perhaps even more to the point, in his description of the economic and demographic factors that underpinned the massive modernist building projects of this era, Burley has produced the most substantive account of Winnipeg’s post 1945 history undertaken by any scholar in the past thirty years. Quite a remarkable achievement in so short and pithy an essay.
Another intriguing contribution is Keshavjee’s essay on Centennial Hall at the University of Winnipeg, “The Campus as City.” This is a fine evocation of the ways in which late-modernist architecture could respond to a unique set of circumstances such as the spatial requirements of a rapidly expanding university—that was expected to keep growing and yet had very little physical space to expand into—owing to its downtown location. And finally there was the not so special circumstance of a very limited capital budget. What is made most clear is that not only did the architects respond to these challenges and come up with a building which Keshavjee compares rather favourably to the Crystal Palace and the Centre George Pompidou, but they did so in ways that meshed with the latest trends in educational philosophy. Thus, this project seemed like a marriage made in heaven, earning the praise of architecture’s most important journals, city officials and members of the university community when it was completed in 1972.
Sadly, the honeymoon did not last long, as rapidly swelling enrollments and the concomitant demands for space in the 1970s caused university administrators to utilize Centennial Hall’s open spaces in ways that violated the original artistic vision of the principal architect. In this regard President Duckworth of the University of Winnipeg comes very close to being portrayed as a Philistine for not appreciating how the changes he mandated in this structure (which had been purposely designed to accommodate easy and inexpensive alterations—quelle irony!) were destroying the artistic integrity of the structure. I must admit to finding such a characterization more than a bit unfair (both to Duckworth and to Philistines, who were actually quite cultured), even if I was never a fan of the President during my undergraduate career at the University of Winnipeg. But even Keshavjee, who is clearly more inclined to side with an architect than a university administrator, has to concede that if Duckworth did not live up to or understand the artistic vision behind Centennial Hall, and inadvertently helped to turn it into an architectural laughing-stock, he and other administrators at the University of Winnipeg never lost sight of the goals which had supposedly animated the original design of Centennial Hall, a determination “to uphold [the University’s] promise of accessibility to students” and that as a result, even to this day the University of Winnipeg continues to “pay attention to its inner city, heterogeneous student body and urban environs .…” (p. 122) One might be forgiven for thinking that this was the more important consideration than strict fidelity to an architect’s vision.
Kelly Crossman’s “The Meaning of White” and Herbert Enns, “Wide Open Spaces” are particularly useful contributions for those who wish to understand how the local environment shaped and modified the “Internationalstyle” that was inherent in modernist architecture. Unfortunately, Enns does overreach a bit when near the end of his essay he seeks to link the poetry of Robert Kroetsch, the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, the writings of several modernist architectural masters, hydroelectric development in the north, and the erection of a TV tower in North Dakota with the move to late modernist architecture (1968-1975) in Winnipeg. The connections are certainly there, but they are not made very effectively in this rather disjointed piece. Conversely, Bernard Flaman’s piece on the Winnipeg International Airport is a tightly focused chapter, as are the essays by Terri Fuglem on the work of Gustavo da Roza, and Faye Hellner’s contribution on Étienne Gaboury. All three of these essays go a long way towards helping the reader to understand the vision which inspired some of the buildings Winnipeggers see and use on an almost daily basis. Flaman’s description of the role of nationalism and the abstract artwork which decorated the airport will be revelations to many Winnipeggers who probably had no idea that their International Airport was anything other than a utilitarian structure (or that it ever had much in the way of art work). Meanwhile, Fuglem’s portrayal of da Roza—a transitional figure between late modernism and post-modernism—manages to capture the whimsical and populist nature of a man who was just as comfortable designing a low cost home for a railway worker as he was designing the building for which Winnipeggers know him best—the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Hellner’s essay on Gaboury is equally intriguing, as it charts the intellectual development of a Bauhaus-inspired modernist who moved away from this orientation and towards a vision rooted in a commitment to the environment and in his own personal sense of spirituality; a vision which increasingly found expression in new materials, new technologies and new techniques which allowed him to overcome what he saw as the limitations of modernist architecture and create unique works of prairie architecture such as the Royal Canadian Mint.
At the end of the day then, Winnipeg Modern is a valuable addition to the literature on post World War II Winnipeg. For students of the city’s history, for those who have an interest in intellectual history, for those with an interest in architecture, indeed for anyone who has more than a passing interest in understanding how we got the built environment which shapes our daily lives, this will be, or should be, essential reading.
Still, having said this, I must admit that in my estimation nothing could possibly constitute more essential reading than the works of Winnipeg’s community of writers. True, historians, architects, geographers, political scientists, and all manner of other scholars, have much to offer the larger project of trying to understand the city, but I remain convinced that it is the community of artists who can tell us the most about its “soul.” The Winnipeg Connection, edited by Birk Sproxton (who passed away very recently) goes a long way towards doing just this. Of course, with thirty-five distinct entries, it is inevitable that the collection will be more than a bit uneven, but there are a number of original essays, reprinted works of authors with a Winnipeg connection, plus some original works never before seen—or only recently discovered—by these authors, that make this work an invaluable source for those seeking to understand Winnipeg at mid-century.
Sproxton’s introductory essay is marked by both its clarity and its humility. No extraordinary claims are advanced for Winnipeg’s literary history, yet the reader gets a palpable sense of what a remarkable literary and intellectual “island” Winnipeg was at mid-century. In Sproxton’s words, this collection “... attempts the impossible. It presumes to present a biography of a city, as if we were writing the biography of a real-life person. Cumulatively, the book gets at the ’character’ of Winnipeg.” (p. 10) But having said this, he admits that by looking only at “writing lives,” it must, of necessity, be only a partial biography.
After an interesting little photographic essay, The Winnipeg Connection starts out by offering readers a series of three surprising essays. One by Christopher Dafoe focuses on the multi-talented (English Professor, musician, critic, CBC radio personality, poet) Chester Duncan, the second, by Gene Walz, discusses early Manitoba film makers while the third is a charming little essay by Dennis Cooley on Sinclair Ross. I describe these as surprising largely because none of the three say much about writing in Winnipeg, although they do help to set a certain tone.
It is when this collection moves into the section by and/or about Jack Ludwig that the sense of Winnipeg at mid-century comes through with clarion-like quality. Ludwig’s “Star Chamber Day in the Committee Room” is both a fine piece of writing and a revealing vignette of the mind-set of war time Winnipeg, where civil liberties and freedom of speech were not highly regarded. Meanwhile, Ludwig’s introduction to the paperback edition of Confusions should be mandatory reading for all literary critics and all cultural historians of Winnipeg for reasons that quickly will become apparent to any reader. Then there is the interview that Ariel Gordon conducted with Ludwig in 1999. This is filled with insights into Ludwig’s core frame of reference and the Winnipeg of his youth; a place that he characterizes as that river city of “passion,” “political ferment,” and “pressing economic realities.” (p. 97) Finally, Robert Mills’ quirky exploration, part personal and part academic, of Ludwig’s Above Ground and the short story which inspired it, is quite simply outstanding.
Scott Ellis’ essay on the now forgotten, but once hugely popular Science Fiction writer, A. E. van Vogt is quite the revelation to those of us who are not part of the SF world. What a shock to discover that one of the genre’s leading lights of the 1940s and 1950s was really a Mennonite boy, brought up in rural Manitoba and Saskatchewan and then Winnipeg. More to the point, Ellis manages to link Mennonite history and its Zeitgeist with van Vogt’s SF world view—a seemingly unlikely combination that Ellis explores quite fearlessly given his somewhat controversial take on the connection.
Di Brandt’s essay on James Reaney, the award-winning poet and playwright who was briefly transplanted to Winnipeg via a teaching appointment at the University of Manitoba, provides a brilliant reading of Reaney’s harsh and apocalyptic “Message to Winnipeg.” It also argues for the impact of Winnipeg and the West upon his usually Northrup Frye inspired work. Walter Swazy’s essay—the first of two in the collection—“Before the Beginning” is a delightful remembrance of Winnipeg’s literary scene in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s—before most people thought that Winnipeg had such a scene. It is both unpretentious and free of the defensiveness about the somewhat limited access that Winnipeggers had to the larger literary world in those early days. It also tells the reader much about the venues and the supportive audiences of peers, mentors and aficionados that allowed a later generation of “Can Lit” stars to grow, develop and then take off from Winnipeg.
This seems the perfect segue way into the section on Margaret Laurence, which commences with one of her least known pieces of work. Her poem “North Main Car,” written in 1948 but never published until 1999, is more like an old friend than a work of art. Explicitly left-wing in tone, sympathetic to the individuals who made up the rich ethnic and political mix that was the North End, it strikes one as a love letter to a Winnipeg that no longer exists. The accompanying essay by Margaret Wigmore provides a strong context for this poem and helps one to understand just how important Laurence’s sojourn in Winnipeg—both as a student and then as a journalist—was to her later career as a novelist. However, Wigmore is very clear that while Winnipeg was acknowledged by Laurence as an important part of the writer’s formative experience, it did not and could not serve as the locus of her later stories. Noelle Boughton’s piece on Laurence’s career as a journalist with the Winnipeg Citizen is even more blunt—and yet charming—as it recounts the tale of what led/forced Laurence away from journalism and thus towards her avocation as a writer of fiction.
The fairly tight focus upon Laurence then gives way to what I think of as a “section,” although it is not set aside as such in the text, on the broader culture of Winnipeg at mid-century. A lengthy essay by Jack Bumsted on the “culture of anxiety” in Winnipeg during the early 1950s is the starting point. Unfortunately, while his observations on the dangers of flooding, polio and nuclear war are informative, they don’t really make much of a connection to the writer’s world of Winnipeg. By much the same token, “Crossing Portage and Main,” written by a mother and son—one an English Professor, the other an architect—is an interesting intellectual exploration of the meaning of centre and the loss of centre, both for individuals and for cities, but it too seems to lack the connection to the world of the writer that one expects in such a collection. Jim Scott’s contribution on Marshall McLuhan, essentially a review of Understanding Me, a collection of 18 interviews, speeches and lectures by McLuhan between 1959 and 1979, lovingly offered by a former student of the Winnipeg-reared communications icon, manages to completely ignore any Winnipeg connection whatsoever, let alone a connection to the writer’s world of the city.
Still, having said this, when these three essays are added to Paula Kelly’s work on that most exotic of European transplants to 1950s Winnipeg—the talented composer and virtuoso pianist and violinist—Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté, to Howard Curle’s essay on early television in Winnipeg, and to Rory Runnell’s introduction to the enfant terriblé of Winnipeg (and Canadian) theatre, John Hirsch, the collection manages to convey a far more complete picture of Winnipeg’s increasingly rich cultural life in the post war era than any individual piece might have done.
All of this, however, does bring us back to the world of writers, for example to David Williamson’s personal memoir of being a reviewer, as well as a writer of Canadian fiction in a time and place that he feels did not very often celebrate its own. There is also Dick Harrison’s post-colonial analysis of the role of fathers in the works of the great trinity of mid-century Winnipeg (and United College/University of Winnipeg) writers Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman and Patricia Blondal. In their work he notes a profound transformation from the patriarch of the European family or of the Empire (writ large) to “post-colonial fathers, marginalized and powerless but effective not only in redeeming fatherhood from its patriarchal excesses but in laying to rest the ghosts of empire.” (p. 287) More to the point, he portrays Winnipeg as “the most likely locus for this post-colonial literary evolution” (p. 287) in the work of these three writers, few other cities could have produced the raw material or the spirit for such an evolution.
This serves as the de facto introduction to what many readers will find the most moving and original contribution of this collection —the section on the life and work of Patricia Blondal. Sadly, Laurie Ricou’s essay will introduce many readers to Blondal for the first time, largely because her life, both as a writer and in an absolute sense, was so brief. Her only novel, A Candle to Light the Sun was published posthumously in 1959, the same year that Blondal died of cancer at the age of 33. The most powerful piece in this section is undoubtedly Blondal’s never before published poem, the untitled “long poem” or notes that she wrote in Montreal as she was undergoing treatment for cancer. For me, if there is absolutely nothing else of merit in this collection, the publication of this poem alone would justify the entire project: it is raw, powerful and terrifying, and yet strangely beautiful. It is the lament of a woman, powerfully aware of her own mortality and her own identification as a woman, having both her life and everything which in an external sense identified her as a women, taken away from her. And yet it is also a rejection of death, or at least of its imminence, and of all that the surgeons and radiologists have done to her. In short it is ambiguous, wracked by pain, but also wracked by hope and by memory. The accompanying essay by Ulrich Teucher, “Renegade Cells” does a magnificent job of explaining and contextualizing this poem—and it also manages to bring this poem back into the orbit of Winnipeg writing—no mean feat given its Montreal hospital setting. Meanwhile, Catherine Hunter’s “Underground in Winnipeg: Patricia Blondal’s A Candle to Light the Sun” does almost the opposite. She takes this Winnipeg-set novel (or at least half set in Winnipeg) and convincingly argues that Blondal was consciously distancing herself and the reader from the city as a real physical setting even as she employed Winnipeg as her metaphor for the corruption inherent in a modern urban environment.
Recovering from the emotional impact of Blondal’s long poem is not easy, at least it was not for me. But the inherent advantage of a collection such as the Winnipeg Connection is that the individual pieces are so self-contained that the reader can put the book down for long stretches and then resume at her/his leisure, or whenever their emotional equilibrium has returned. This was exactly the strategy I adopted before turning to the last few essays—and it was a break that was richly rewarded. George Melnyk’s previously published essay on John Marlyn’s—and Melnyk’s—North End Winnipeg, takes readers through a social and political geography of change over time, but it also reminds them of one of the essential and almost timeless divides in Winnipeg, that between left and right, which was often mirrored by the physical geography of north and south Winnipeg. Then there is Christine Riegel’s “Looking Home: Location and Dislocation in Margaret Laurence’s This Side Jordan” which positions Laurence as an expatriate writer in the Salman Rushdie sense. And although the essay is supposedly about Laurence’s African writing, it also helps to explain how she was in many ways an expatriate (and viewed as such in Neepawa), from the scene of her greatest success as a writer. Meanwhile, Walter Swayze’s analysis of Laurence’s The Stone Angel takes a truly unique approach: instead of relying upon his close personal relationship with Laurence or upon the latest styles in literary analysis, he provides a reading of Laurence’s most famous work set in the critical and intellectual tropes which actually influenced her as a university student and as a young writer. This is a fascinating approach which tells one almost as much about the history of 20th century literary criticism, the “New Criticism” of the 1940s and ’50s and the impact of T. S. Eliot upon a whole generation of writers as it does about The Stone Angel.
Taken as a whole The Winnipeg Connection has much to offer a broad array of readers. For some, it will be an introduction to an era and to a whole host of writers they may have never before encountered, or personalities they have heard others speak about, but have never really known about in any substantive fashion. For those with a bit more expertise it will serve as a handy reference work; indeed, students of western Canadian and Winnipeg literature would be well advised to get their own copy. But there will be those who are disappointed by what is not included in this very catholic collection. Adele Wiseman is mentioned many times, but is not the primary subject of a single essay, and not a single example of her writing is included. Nor is this the only exclusion. Thus, The Winnipeg Connection should be supplemented by works such as The Imagined City and Ruth Ponofsky’s The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman—and of course the entire oeuvre of Winnipeg writers such as Maara Haas, Miriam Waddington—and the list goes on and on. But it is still a good place to start.
And of course, it should also be supplemented by Winnipeg Modern. What so many of the writers discussed in The Winnipeg Connection were doing was akin to the intellectual project of the architectural modernists: they too were trying to let light in and to be freed from the constraints of inherited traditions, to be free to explore and make use of the environment in which they found themselves living and working. The architects and the writers, not a usual combination, is perhaps one that needs a bit more exploration. It is a good season for Winnipeg readers when two such valuable books become available at the same time, and even better when one considers the flow of relatively high quality work that continues to be produced, opening ever more doors on Winnipeg’s history.
1. Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey, Ten Years in Winnipeg. (Times Printing and Publishing House, Winnipeg: 1879). It can be argued that Winnipeg had its first history written long before the town was actually established via the work of Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement: Its Rise Progress, and Present State. (Originally published in 1856, reprinted Edmonton: 1972).
2. Alan F. J. Artibise, Winnipeg: An Illustrated History. James Lorimer & Co., Toronto: 1977.
Page revised: 6 October 2019