Winnipeg: Muddy Water & Portage and Main
The word Winnipeg comes from the Cree words “Win,” meaning muddy, and “Nippee,” for water.
The city of Winnipeg, which is the capital and largest city in Manitoba, has an interesting beginning. This place of muddy water started out simply as a fort way back in the 18th century and then began growing when a Selkirk settlement became established in 1812. The population really began to take off when the railroad which carried goods and passengers to the area was completed. By the time 1873 rolled around Winnipeg was incorporated as a city.
Like a lot of Canadian cities the existence of rivers played a major part in the location and establishment of Winnipeg. Where the Assiniboine and the Red River join is known as The Forks and this had been a natural focus as a landing place by First Nations people for thousands of years. It is at this traditional “stopping over” place that the city we know as Winnipeg today began.
Canada was explored by the Europeans largely because of the fur trade and these rivers were natural highways through which First Nations peoples and then, later, Europeans travelled. Even today there is lots to remind us of Winnipeg as a trading centre for the various First Nations peoples. Archaeologists have discovered many artifacts and petroglyphs from such peoples as the Cree, Sioux, Assiniboine, and Lakota, to name just a few of the many early travellers to the area who were involved in hunting, fishing, trade, and even some farming.
The Hudson Bay Company established Fort Garry at The Forks in 1822 which housed the Governor of the company and had the distinction of being one of the first major settlements in Western Canada.
One cannot talk about the early history of Winnipeg without referring to the Red River Rebellion which occurred in 1869-70. This was a result of competing forces involving local Metis, led by Louis Riel and newcomers to the area over trade and governance. General Wolseley was dispatched to quell this rebellion. These historical events have been compressed into a few short sentences, but it is noteworthy that, as a result of this rebellion, Manitoba entered into Confederation as Canada’s fifth province in 1870. Three short years later Winnipeg was incorporated as a city.
From the late 1800s until the 1920s, Winnipeg was a real railway boom town, establishing itself as the commercial capital of the prairies. It is interesting that Winnipeg’s train station was designed by the architectural firm which created the design of New York City’s Union Station. As immigrants arrived to take advantage of work opportunities during this time, Winnipeg exhibited a real international and multicultural flavour. It was also during this period (roughly 1909 to 1912) that Winnipeg became famous (or perhaps infamous) for its red-light districts. Today, many of the streets of Winnipeg that bear a female name were likely named after various “madams” from the period.
However, all good things must come to an end. Such was the case for the railroad boom that Winnipeg was experiencing. The reason for this was the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. When this canal opened, two things happened: the reliance on Canada’s railroad was sharply reduced for international trade and there was a huge increase in ship traffic.
World War 1, the Great Depression, and the Second World War all had their effect on the City of Winnipeg. The ups and downs of this unique city included such landmark events as the Winnipeg General Strike, outstanding contributions to the war effort, and the 1950 Red River flood which lasted well beyond two months and resulted in the evacuation of 100,000 people and widespread destruction. Throughout it all Winnipeggers displayed a sense of resilience and developed their own unique identity.
Winnipeg’s climate is one of warm muggy summers and long cold winters. As a matter of fact, Winnipeg, which is known as the coldest city in Canada, actually has a region on the planet Mars named after it for this reason. The average temperature in July is 19.7 degrees Celsius, with January’s average coming in at minus 16.4 degrees Celsius. So, Winnipeg is a city of extreme temperatures; but on the upside, with 2353 hours of sunshine on average per year, Winnipeg is the second sunniest city in Canada.
Funny enough, Winnipeg’s weather has made its way into Canadian speech. The expression involving “Portage and Main” has come to mean more than just an intersection of downtown Winnipeg. This spot, which is known as “Canada’s coldest intersection,” has become part of the vernacular of Canadians across the country. Whether facing such conditions firsthand or only in their imagination, Canadians understand what a “Portage and Main” moment is.
Again, Portage Avenue is unique in that it is the widest of its kind in Canada due to the fact that it began as a muddy ox cart trail that was required to accommodate the width of twenty ox carts, so that the crush of early settlers travelling out West would not become bottlenecked on their journey.
Winnipeg, which is technically the geographical center of North America, has a population of close to one million. It is an attractive city in so many ways. It is attractive for businesses and investors because it boasts low overall business costs in a steady and stable environment. One such feature is that it has the lowest published electricity costs in North America. It also has a well-developed manufacturing infrastructure and a skilled labour force to complement it. To boot, it’s location places it as a transportation hub within a one-hour drive from the U.S. border.
In addition to having an environment which is attractive to business, Winnipeg has a rich and ongoing tradition of sports and cultural entities. Winnipeg has been described as the “cradle of culture” in Canada. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet is the longest continuous running dance company in North America. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet School is an elite classical ballet training school for students in grades six through twelve. In recent years approximately 70 young dancers from all over the world are enrolled in this school. The Winnipeg Art Gallery is world renowned for housing the largest and most comprehensive collection of Inuit art anywhere.
There are over 2000 hotel rooms right in the downtown core of Winnipeg with over 7000 hotel rooms scattered throughout the city. With over 100 languages being spoken within the city and a plethora of great restaurants to tempt one’s palette, Winnipeg enjoys a truly international feel.
Winnipeg is also the home to a number of sports teams such as the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the National Hockey League’s Winnipeg Jets, the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose, and the American Baseball League’s Winnipeg Goldeyes.
Here is something to ponder: without Winnipeg we would not have had James Bond, Winnie the Pooh, or Bugs Bunny! Surprised you, didn’t it?
This city, which has housed the Harlequin Romance Publishing empire since 1949, was also highlighted in 2016 by Vogue Magazine when it listed Winnipeg as one of its “must see” destinations. It’s easy to see why!