Manitoba Historical Society
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Winnipeg Parks

by William Douglas

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 14, 1957-58 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Someone has said, "we are the heirs of the past and ancestors of the future." As we contemplate what we are privileged to observe in our gorgeous park system - our own parks - let us think of ourselves as fortunate "heirs".

We, the citizens of Winnipeg, possess something truly beautiful something which was bequeathed to us by other citizens who built for posterity in the yesterdays of the City. Let us, however, realize that we are the ancestors of generations who in the course of time will enter into their civic responsibility in the tomorrow of the future.

Speaking of heirs, in a general sense, they are not usually an appreciative group. What they inherit has usually cost them little or no personal effort. The benefactor, on the other hand, used his creative ability, his initiative, his honest toil, and put a real part of himself into the gift he left to his heirs. The recipient gives little appreciation to the hard experience, the long weary grind, the self-sacrifice, the sad disappointments that were encountered before success rewarded a devotion of heart and mind and hand to the object striven after.

Our modern life provides ample evidence that scant respect is shown to the men who toiled for the things we accept as commonplace and which we consider our right. The form of government under which we live did not just happen - it only came when men struggled toward a definite goal. A democracy in which there was to be equality of opportunity to every person was once considered but a flimsy, floating dream. Our freedom was won through blood and sweat and tears, yet we see these priceless possessions carelessly taken for granted by our own generation.

And we could enlarge and extend the reference to this spirit of the times to include the attitude toward free education; free speech; freedom of religion; a free press and freedom of assembly. All these gifts have come to us as an inheritance and are the result of some particular man being obsessed by an idea.

The flowering acres which we admire so much in the public parks of our City had their foundation deep in the heart of a pioneer citizen; George F. Carruthers - dubbed in his own day by our local newspapers as "the father of our public parks". As we gaze in admiration upon the rows upon rows of gorgeous blooms, or step across the velvet greensward, or drive along the well-treed driveways, we are perhaps a bit forgetful of the story which our beloved prairie land has to tell. Let us take a quick peek at the page of history.

You learned from your school books that the first settlers in this country reached Red River in the Fall of 1812. The man in charge of the party reported to Lord Selkirk in these words: "The country exceeds any idea I had formed of its goodness. I am only astonished it had lain so long unsettled. The land is most fertile." It was well the land was fertile because a second party of settlers arrived a few weeks later and their entire store of food at journey's end consisted of thirty-five bags of oatmeal.

And, when Sir George Simpson appeared before the Select Committee of the British House of Commons in 1857, he asserted with all gravity that: "there was no future in agriculture before the Canadian West".

Later, about the time Manitoba was received into Confederation, J. J. Hargrave had this to say: "the possibility of conducting agricultural operations, at a distance of more than two miles back from the river, has not yet been practically tested."

True, in spite of these pessimistic opinions, the hardy settlers down Kildonan way did make a fairly comfortable living off the land, but the area was somewhat restricted and little encouragement had been offered for its development.

The creation of Manitoba as a Province in 1870 brought great changes and settlers began to fill many vacant acres. Dr. George M. Grant tells of a visit he paid in 1872; "a walk in the garden at Silver Heights was sufficient to prove to us the richness of the soil of the Assiniboine Valley. The wealth of vegetation and the size of the root crops astonished us, especially when informed that no fertilizer had been used."

We can search the early records without much success to find any reference to the growing of flowers in the early Red River days. The pioneer doubtless was too busy raising crops to bother himself or herself with flowers.

One of the earliest references I have found was written by a settler from England who, with evident nostalgic longing, had this to say: "The well-known flower seeds, mignonette and sweet peas do well, indeed all annuals will here grow luxuriantly; but perennials, as a rule perish in the severe winter frosts, though if covered over with manure, they might withstand it." He continues his comment; "One sadly misses the sweet smelling flowers and glorious roses of Old England, the climbing ivy and many hued creepers, but if the nostrils are not regaled, vision is abundantly favored by the bewildering beauty of the woods and prairie."

Perhaps we have here a hint that in the early days of Manitoba the profusion of wild flowers growing all over the prairie were in themselves sufficient to satisfy the personal desire. When I arrived in Winnipeg in 1904, I actually believed that only sweet peas could be grown here, and there was good reason for such an idea. Many of you, no doubt, will recall these beautiful blooms were the crowning glory round the verandah throughout the City. So prominent was the sweet pea that someone, in all seriousness, suggested its adoption as the Provincial flower of Manitoba.

With many negative attitudes and a not very pronounced favourable opinion it required more than average optimism to write into the Statutes of the Province, in 1892, The Public Parks Act. During the consideration of this Bill, the provision of a fund "not exceeding a half mill on the dollar" was a stumbling block. One member of the House, a representative from Winnipeg, expressed the opinion that the amount ought to be "one mill" while another member, from a rural point, heatedly insisted that one quarter mill would be ample. The politician of yesteryear seems to have been quite as adept as is his successor of today.

With the passing of the Public Parks Act by the Manitoba Legislature, the way was paved for action by the Winnipeg City Council. The father of our Public Parks System, Alderman Carruthers, lost no time in preparing for the future. Less than ten months after the enactment of the Bill, the City Council passed the necessary by-law and forthwith appointed the first Parks Board in January, 1893. During the first year of operation, the newly-created Parks Board, in addition to organizing its work and routine of operation, purchased four parks; i.e., Victoria Park, Fort Rouge Park, Central Park; and St. John's Park. All four, with the exception of Victoria Park, still give increasing pleasure and enjoyment to thousands of our citizens each year.

Speaking from a personal standpoint, I have never forgiven the City Council for selling Victoria Park to the City Hydro. Where once existed, in the very heart of Winnipeg, a real beauty spot, on the bank of the Red River, we now find a gigantic commercial building, smoke stacks, coal dump, smoke and soot. And why should I feel grieved? Well, this particular bit of land was a part of the first piece of cultivated soil in the Canadian West. Originally it stood just outside the picket stockade of Fort Douglas. It was known as the Colony Farm and produced sustenance for our old originals. It was deeded to Alexander Ross in 1825 and through the years was known as "Colony Gardens." Perhaps the utilitarian instincts of the City Fathers far outweighs their perspective when it comes to offset dollars against an historic link connecting the present with the yesterdays of our community. So we lost Colony Gardens, renamed by the Parks Board, Victoria Park in honour of the revered Queen.

I have a sentimental attachment toward St. John's Park. Here was the starting line of the survey made by Peter Fidler in 1814 and the original settlers plowed their lands and raised their crops right there.

As we look around the greatly expanded City today and visit the many parks now operated on behalf of the citizens, it is difficult to fully realize that development of this important segment of our community life was slow - indeed the patience of the working staff has been marvellous. From a bald, almost forbidding stretch of prairie, there has emerged the miracle, not of three or four parks with gardens, but a group of real show-places which are second to none on this continent. Yes, they have cost money-a lot of money, over .the years but it has been on the investment side of the ledger, and cannot by any stretch of imagination be debited as an expense. The citizens get so much for so little. Without checking closely with the authorities, I understand that the per capita cost of our park system is about $1.50. At times it cost more than this to remove snow from the City streets. Modest is too modest a word for what we get for our park dollar.

One could further enlarge the glorious success story which followed the institution of the Parks Board sixty-five years ago. We have indeed entered into a heritage and it should be our constant purpose to give full encouragement to the men who carry on and improve what has been done.

The citizens of Winnipeg have been well served and still receive devoted service from the aldermen and citizens who comprise the Parks Board. We remember many of the big-hearted souls who, over the years, occupied the responsibility of being chairman. This is no sinecure. It takes time, energy, and above all administrative ability to fulfil the duties of the office. I could particularize by naming those I have known, but in doing so I would do a disfavour to other chairmen equally great. They have given great service to their fellow citizens.

It is not appropriate that I take time to recapitulate in statistical form figures as to area, cost, tenure etc., of our park system. Tonight, we are seated in a typical Winnipeg park and it consists of some three-hundred acres. Who among us is really concerned about the cost or the annual upkeep expense? To me the mystery is, how so much can be put at our disposal for so moderate a cost.

All my life I have loved a garden. The love of a garden, like charity, never fails. The joy is ever present from the time a baby tries to grab the artificial flower from its mother's coat until the snow is on its head. Or, to quote the old gardener, "until we reach the octogeranium stage." Regardless of age, the man who loves a garden always has summer in his heart.

The wisdom of the men who first created the Parks Board and the success which has followed their modest first beginnings is reflected in all parts of the City. Not only is this the case in the public parks but it is found to a lesser degree in the home grounds of our citizens and these seem to increase in beauty with every passing year.

This horticulture-this beautiful blessing with which God has enriched your life, should not be restricted to the rich or even the middle class but made available to every man regardless of his station in life. If we can once get a man to see that he can grow things pleasant to the eye and good to eat, you will do more to keep that man busy during his leisure hours than by any other means.

We have travelled along this projected route ever since the Parks Board was instituted and excellent progress has been made. The vision of the organizers must surely have been realized long, long ago, because of the evidence all around. The foundations which were laid sixty-five years ago must have been deep and sound because with each successive Board we find the men chosen for the positions still working with the same spirit as their predecessors-or shall we call them "ancestors."

As heirs, then, we have entered into a great heritage.

To uphold and maintain what has been bequeathed to us and to hand these priceless possessions on to the next generation, unsullied, is surely our responsibility.

From what we see in the City Parks as they exist today - from what we know of the men who have brought us such a wealth of beauty - from the operating staff who have served us so faithfully; we must place to their credit our seal of grateful approval. Their efforts indicate that the challenging words emblazoned on the crest of the City - Commerce, Industry, Prudence - have indeed found a practical realization in this particular branch of the civic service.

I am sure you agree with me that it is appropriate that the Manitoba Historical Society should, at this time, hold its Annual General Meeting in this beautiful setting in Assiniboine Park. My hope is that the few complimentary remarks which have been made will deepen your personal interest in what belongs to us as citizens of a friendly City.

Page revised: 22 May 2010

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