Manitoba Organization: Winnipeg Canoe Club
In February 1893, Winnipeg businessman George F. R. Harris, William G. Nicholls, and Llewelyn A. Nares met in Clougher’s restaurant on Main Street. During the conversation over lunch, they lamented the fact that the city, despite having two rivers flowing through it, had no social club for recreational paddlers. (The Winnipeg Rowing Club, founded in 1881, was mainly for competitive rowers.) They resolved to do something about it. In March 1893, the Winnipeg Canoe Club was founded with William Whyte as Honorary President, Hugh John Macdonald as President, Thomas Robinson as Vice-President, and George Harris as “Captain,” later renamed “Commodore.”
The Club had its first clubhouse on the banks of the Red River at the Norwood Bridge. In 1910, they moved to new facilities on Jubilee Avenue opposite Elm Park. It was used for three years until a new clubhouse was built at a site on the east side of the Red River, in what was then the Rural Municipality of St. Vital, at a cost of about $28,000. The Winnipeg Canoe Club was formally incorporated by an Act of the provincial legislature in 1914. Members from the west side of the river could walk to the club across a pontoon bridge where the St. Vital Bridge now stands, or drive across the Elm Park Bridge.
At first, the club was oriented mostly toward outdoor water sports during the summer. The primary purpose was recreational canoeing and rowing. Sometimes, canoes would be rigged with a sail so members could sail up and down the river. Members also enjoyed swimming and diving from the club’s dock on the river. In time, facilities for golf (1918) and tennis (1919) were added. When motorboats became more popular, members began storing their motors in the club’s boathouse. Other outdoor sports hosted at the club through the years included football, rugby, archery, basketball, volleyball, and badminton. Winter use consisted of snowshoeing and hockey on the Red River. In 1933, several members of club made an expedition to the Pembina Valley near La Riviere that resulted in the establishment of the province’s first downhill ski hill there. The club did not become a year-round operation until 1970 when it merged with the Winnipeg Badminton Club and constructed indoor courts for badminton, racquetball, and handball.
Initially, club membership was available only to men and, as of 1910, a maximum of 350 members was permitted. Women were permitted to use the golf course and tennis courts. The club’s Paddling Section started in 1925 that allowed women to participate in boating for the first time. By 1941, women were admitted as associate members having most of the benefits of full membership.
The clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 1954 and a replacement opened officially in April 1955. The two-storey structure featured lounges, dining and sitting rooms, locker rooms, and a banquet hall. In 1963, the club faced a crisis when plans were announced to build the St. Vital Bridge linking Osborne Street and Dunkirk Drive, taking much of the club’s golf course for the roadway and approaches. Some members felt this would be a death blow for, without golf course revenue, the club could not survive. A plan to relocate the club to another site was rejected. Instead, a reconfiguration of the golf course was found to be possible and the club survived at its existing site. In the aftermath of this crisis, a club committee made several recommendations including: 1) to enlarge the dining and lounge area to enable them to host larger social functions, 2) to install air-conditioning in the building, 3) to build a larger boathouse, and 4) to build a 25-meter outdoor swimming pool with enlarged locker room. All were intended to increase the membership and revenue-generating potential of the club.
In the early days, club membership was so sought-after that there was a waiting list. There were 950 members in 1935 and 1,014 in 1962. By the early 1980s, however, intense competition from numerous other sports facilities around the city began to take its toll, and membership declined. The club attempted to counteract the impact of decreasing revenue by carving off a portion of its riverfront property and developing a condominium complex on it. For reasons unknown, the club realized much less profit from the project than had been predicted. The club’s financial status became increasing dire. An inkling of events to come occurred in November 1987 when the club closed for a week when its bank refused to extend more credit.
The club celebrated its centenary in 1993 but its dire circumstances also came to a head. The entire board of directors resigned and was replaced but it was too little, too late. Operation of the facility was taken over by the City of Winnipeg when the club failed to pay $140,000 in back taxes on its property. At first, the facility was used by a consortium of German cultural organizations but the group “couldn’t run the facility in a financially viable manner.” Finally closed in May 2001, the dock and boathouse continued to be used by members of the Prairie Fire Rowing Club while members of the Dunkirk Tennis Club used the 10 tennis courts (without access to washrooms or locker rooms). Inside the clubhouse, four glass-backed squash courts, two racquetball and handball courts, five badminton courts, and banquet and restaurant facilities lay dormant.
In 2004, the Prairie Fire and Dunkirk clubs submitted proposals for continued use of the site in response to a request from the City of Winnipeg but neither was accepted because they did not use the entire 6-acre property. In 2006, a Saskatoon-based land developer proposed to construct a senior residential complex on the site. Tennis fans were outraged because the proposal entailed the destruction of what they described as “world-class” facilities to build a parking lot. The graffiti-festooned clubhouse was demolished in the mid-2006.
There are at least two remnants of the former Winnipeg Canoe Club. On the banks of the Red River are the remains of the piers for its dock. More conspicuously is the club’s 9-hole golf course, known today as the Canoe Club Golf Course, managed by a private company. A large collection of Canoe Club records is held at the provincial archives.
The Commodore was the senior executive of the club, equivalent to the President of other organizations.
“Winnipeg Canoe Club,” Manitoba Free Press, 23 March 1893, page 3.
“Winnipeg Canoe Club, haven of health, organized at luncheon-table conference over 40 years ago,” Winnipeg Tribune, 25 April 1936, page 33.
“Winnipeg Canoe Club is a pleasant retreat on a hot summer day,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 July 1941, page 9.
“Winnipeg Canoe Club celebrates 50th year,” Winnipeg Tribune, 6 June 1942, page 31.
“Good old days at Canoe Club brimful of fun and frolic,” Winnipeg Free Press, 31 March 1954, page 31.
“City’s canoe club started 85 years ago,” Winnipeg Tribune, 17 October 1978.
“Despite the rumors, Canoe Club afloat,” Winnipeg Free Press, 14 February 1987, page 2.
“Canoeists reach smoother water,” Winnipeg Free Press, 6 July 1987, page 17.
“Members endorse plan to keep canoe club afloat,” Winnipeg Free Press, 12 November 1987, page 5.
“City closes Canoe Club and seeks new use,” Winnipeg Free Press, 26 May 2001, page A8.
Winnipeg Canoe Club Fonds, Archives of Manitoba.
We thank Darrell Whyte and Frank Sutton for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 23 February 2021