We've been visiting Winnipeg. Manitoba seems like a complex province, with a variety of ethnic groups, not always well treated. The Metis had a rebellion and many moved to Saskatchewan, some of the Mennonites departed after the government went back on its promises, Ukrainians who had been recruited to work on the farms were interned by the thousands during the First World War; starting in 1985 they have been campaigning for reimbursement and an apology (they got the apology.)
In the year 2002, 70% of Manitobans live in Winnipeg, but the once strong manufacturing industries are weak. As always we're interested in what the future holds in store. Surprisingly, we couldn't find a history of the province or its capital in a local bookstore. So much of what we say will be just our own imperfect impressions...
Winnipeg has been a community for perhaps thousands of years, as its position at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers made it a natural place Louis Riel for the first nations to gather and trade. When French-speaking traders began buying animal skins for their fur, Winnipeg was even more the place to gather and trade. When the great plains produced more wheat than the province could consume, Winnipeg was the place to gather and trade. When farm jobs declined because of high productivity agribusiness, Winnipeg became the place to gather and manufacture.
The first fur traders were French-speaking men, who married aboriginal women and produced the French-speaking, buffalo-hunting society called the Metis.
Having lived happily on the plains for nearly fifty years, the Metis resented the proposal for the unification of Canada. Led by the well-educated Louis Riel, they pressed for independence, and succeeded in obtaining the Manitoba Act establishing a separate province, at the same time as the formation of Canada in 1870.
Canadians feared (not without justification) that if they did not match the westward expansion in the U. S., the western plains would be seized by their southern neighbor. But Canada's population was small, and few from Ontario or Quebec were eager to move so far away to the frontier. So the Canadians and the Americans both relied on European immigrants to colonize the great plains. In Manitoba it was Mennonites and Ukrainians who came to establish 160-acre homesteads.
Steinbach, a small town just south of Winnipeg, is home to the Mennonite Heritage Village. In their museum we learned that the Mennonites are an early protestant sect which arose shortly after the time of Martin Luther. They were first called Anabaptists; the name changed to honor an early theologian, Menno Simons. Their beliefs in adult baptism and literal interpretation of the bible were not what were regarded as their greatest heresies. These were their rejection of violence and their refusal to swear oaths to secular lords.
Gradually the Mennonites were forced eastward, from their origins in the Netherlands, Bavaria, Hessia and Switzerland to Prussia, Galicia, and Russia, where Catherine the Great wanted settlers. The Mennonites always bargained to keep their culture: their language, religion, education and customs. But always they were resented and persecuted, and always the host country went back on the bargain.
A large block of land was set aside on the southern Manitoba plain for the Mennonites, and an Act of Parliament promised them their own schools, language, and religion. So these German-speaking Russian protestants boarded trains and moved to Manitoba, where they established some sixty towns in the 1870s. They have created dikes to protect arable land in this area of many lakes and rivers, and they have developed a number of different crop Sister of St. Boniface specialties, most recently the production of honey - we passed many fields planted in clover, with bee hives strategically located.
These Manitoba Mennonites do not reject technology as do the Amish; in fact the car dealers in Steinbach have sharpened their pencils so much that Winnipeg buyers drive twenty miles southeast on a conveniently located freeway to get a better price on a new car or truck in Steinbach.
The Mennonite Heritage Village contains dozens of restored buildings demonstrating the nineteenth-century community life. One attraction is a large windmill. On occasion there are reenactors to demonstrate blacksmithing and farm trades.
Around 1920 the Canadians insisted on the use of English in the schools. Thousands of Mennonites packed up and moved again - to Mexico, Paraguay, and Boliva - in search of the freedom to preserve their culture and religious beliefs. At present there are about a million Mennonites world wide, in dozens of small colonies like this one in Canada.
Our hotel is a brand new Hampton Inn which offers free high-speed internet connections, so we've plugged in our ethernet cables and are downloading genealogical information by the bucketful!
But meanwhile we keep on being tourists. We've been to Assiniboia Downs to watch the ponies run, and one day we visited the Manitoba Museum, an excellent combination of natural and human history. Moving from the Arctic region at the far north through the forest and prairie to Winnipeg at the southern end of the province, visitors can see dioramas of First Nations at work and play, various animals and plants, and descriptions of the effects of industrialization on this hunting and farming culture. The high point is The NoneSuch, a replica of a ship once used by the Hudson's Bay Company. It is dramatically located in a setting of wharf and small shore-side buildings, and you can walk aboard to sample life in this compact ship. Finally we enjoyed the museum's convincing and appealing exhibit of Winnipeg life in the year 1920.
Across the river from our hotel is the French quarter, where the descendants of the Metis and some settlers from Quebec form the largest French-speaking enclave outside of Quebec. The monuments and museum exhibits reveal that Louis Riel appears to be undergoing some sort of sanctification.
The rest of the story is that after the founding of Manitoba and the unification of Canada, Riel still agitated for the establishment of an independent Metis state. He went south into the U. S., where many Metis had fled to the Dakota Territory, and brought a band back into Manitoba to demand independence. There was an armed struggle and the Canadian government won. Foolishly the Canadian government made Louis Riel a martyr by executing him for treason.
In the Grey Nun's house, the old log building which used to house the nursing Sisters of St. Boniface, is a museum of the Metis and the Order. On display are the slippers that Louis Riel wore when he was executed. One of them had been in the possession of a Canadian regimental museum, and was recently requested and received for exhibition with its mate. It is interesting to see the Louis Riel story used as a vehicle for maintaining pressure for French separatism in Canada. Junction of the Red and Assiniboine
We've enjoyed walking in downtown Winnipeg. Our hotel is a block from Union Station, which is just as run down as most Amtrak stations in the U. S. A block in the other direction is the large and fancy Fairmont Hotel. But the downtown neighborhood is not thriving, just holding its own. Eatons Department Store occupied a whole block; the building is being torn down to make way for a giant sports and entertainment complex. Storefronts and office buildings often display For Lease signs. Empty lots give testimony to tearing down eyesores.
The rivers are flooded, so we can't walk along the shoreline. The flood waters don't seem to be receding, even though there hasn't been much rainfall. We asked at the hotel, and were told that in Winnipeg it either snows or floods.
There's a lovely park at the Forks where the two rivers join, with sculpture and grassy fields and an elaborate sundial and calendrical circle, historical signs for us tourists, and a great market. There are two large collections of craft, food, and souvenir stalls, in indoor, attractive settings, crowded with customers. We bought Saskatoon berry and rhubarb marmalade, which we donated to our hotel's morning breakfast spread.
On our first day in Manitoba, we stopped for lunch at a country restaurant. It was a quiet Saturday, and only three or four tables were taken. At the next table four suntanned men conversed happily in Ukrainian, a dialect of Russian. We recommend the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Winnipeg, where a small wizened man took us to the fifth floor and talked us through the exhibits. A war veteran, he was proudest of the Ukrainian Corporal who won the V.C. in WW I. But he told us the local school board hired one Metis, one Jew, and one Ukrainian as teachers. However, he said that seven Winnipeg schools offer instruction in the Ukrainian language.
So some animals remain more equal than others, everywhere you go.