2 — The Trek
Main Street Winnipeg is not friendly to jaywalkers. I decided, wisely, to walk down a block to the lights and use the crosswalk. It is perhaps the second most dangerous crosswalk in Winnipeg, the apex of danger being, of course, the crosswalks at Portage and Main.
I made it safely across.
The French have a good word for it — écrasé. Meaning, wiped out in a traffic accident. If I had been éraséd on that crosswalk, how long, I wondered, how long would it have been before Olga heard about it. And she had just given up her driver’s licence, gets around with a cane, and has no use for a cell phone.
How long would it have been before they collected what was left of me to be preserved?
Anyway. The road to learning is often fraught with danger. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders, and looked around.
There it was. An obscured version. Behind the security fencing. Beyond the machines scurrying around and in front of and beyond it.
What the hell?
Were they razing the structure? The same way the four-metre-high walls and the towering corner bastions and the interior buildings had been razed after Riel left in 1870?
It took me a few moments to determine that the machines were benevolent. They seemed to be creating a park-like grounds as a setting for the Gate.
Only later did I discover that a volunteer group, the Friends of Upper Fort Garry Gate, were responsible for the landscaping.
They were taking what was basically an ugly vacant lot with a scabby stone pile and creating a magnificent park.
How did it come to this?
Well, after 1870, when the HBC had relinquished control of Assiniboia, and the new Province of Manitoba and the new City of Winnipeg took charge of affairs, the old fort fell into disrepair. A new street — Main Street — ran right through it. People carted off the buildings. The walls melted away. In 1888, the last four buildings were sold, including the jewel of the fort, Government House, which was sold for firewood. Eventually only the Gate remained. Eventually the HBC offered the site as a gift to the city “as a public park forever”.
I suspect it became the most neglected park in Canada. I had driven by that vacant lot a hundred times and never seen the Gate. There are still no signs, no parking areas, and no meaningful public recognition of this national historic site.
In 2004 — yes, ten years ago — the City of Winnipeg declared the site was surplus to its needs. Suddenly, fourteen out of every 49 people in Winnipeg were galvanized to act. They created a non-profit group, the Friends of Upper Fort Garry. They discovered they had 107 days to raise $10 million to acquire the site. And, by golly, they did it.
The battle of the Gate continues, for it has yet to achieve recognition as a National Historic Site. Lower Fort Garry — a spectacular collection of stone monuments but a relatively insignificant historical site — made the list in 1951. The Forks made the list in 1974. The Fort Garry Hotel, a weak musket shot from the Gate, a twentieth century structure – a hotel, for gawd’s sake – made the list in 1981.
On the other hand, the Gate did make a list in 1991. It became a Municipally Designated Historic Site. And in 2010, it became a Provincial Park. But not a Provincially Designated Historic Site. Not spectacular enough, I guess.
Make no mistake, Friends.
It is a national historic site. Screw the naysayers.