Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A lot of our city's history set to vanish

Sad lament on tap for boutique hotel slated for ex-Selkirk Settlement land

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This afternoon at one o'clock a small army of bagpipers and drummers will gather near the hallowed historic footprint of Upper Fort Garry, en route to celebrating the 199th anniversary of the founding of the Selkirk Settlement, but, alas, all is not sweet memories and stirring music.

There's a discordant note this year.

The sound of protest.

The resounding issue is the proposed construction of a boutique hotel on Waterfront Drive, and one of the people sounding the alarm is John Perrin, the interim chairman of the parade-sponsoring Scottish Heritage Council of Manitoba.

Perrin's group is appealing a Sunstone Properties plan -- which city council has already approved -- to build the 67-room hotel on what he believes is not only a patch of historically priceless land, but a stretch of the TransCanada Trail that should be left wide open to public biking and walking enjoyment.

And Perrin and his pipers aren't alone in their concern.

While he believes the area is the most historically important property in the city because of 1812, the year the Selkirk Settlers landed in the area and later planted the first wheat, Sandra Gessler believes it's the most important historical property because of what happened there in 1919. She leads the Friends of Victoria Park, a now long-gone piece of downtown green space that was the city's equivalent of speaker's corner during the Winnipeg General Strike -- a place where strikers, returning First World War veterans and working-class families gathered during May and June of 1919 when the mayor of the day banned street protests.

Together, I suppose, you could say Perrin and Gessler lead the Friends of Winnipeg History. They both contend the land on which Sunstone wants to build -- which is now an unsightly gravel parking lot in front of the bunker-like Habour Master's House -- was in fact part of Victoria Park.

And they both say it should be reclaimed as riverfront parkland for the citizens of Winnipeg, thus becoming an extension of exquisitely landscaped Stephen Juba Park and an unbroken pathway of our history, from 1812 to 1919. And linked, as it were, with the recently reclaimed remnant of Upper Fort Garry, which was rescued from the shadow of further development by the likes of former premier Gary Filmon and the other prominent and powerful members of the Friends of Upper Fort Garry.

But during the Friends of Winnipeg History's research into who is behind the Sunstone hotel development, the group's lawyer came across something startling, if not really surprising.

The Hon. Gary Filmon, that trusted old Friend of Upper Fort Garry, is the chairman of the board of the FWS Group, which is the parent company of Sunstone Properties. So it was that late last July, Filmon received an email from Perrin, Gessler and a chap named Al Brownridge, a representative of those Waterfront Drive condo residents who are opposed to a three-storey hotel blocking their view of the bend of the Red River, among other concerns.

"As a former premier of Manitoba and a well-respected leader we know you to be a man of vision, dedicated, fair, careful to consider all sides of an issue, and respect," they began, slathering it on.

Then, speaking on behalf of themselves and a group they say also includes architects, landscape professionals, historians, environmentalists and even city planners, the three front people went straight to their concerns about the hotel project.

"We believe this will have profound long-term consequences for our city and province," they continued.

Then they made their points, including this major one.

"The city failed to meet its obligation to consult the local community regarding development on this site."

Filmon's response arrived just over a week later. He pointed to the political process and Sunstone's adherence to it, and then "respectfully" suggested they take their concerns to city hall.

Which the Friends of Winnipeg History have done, of course.

In his own notice of appeal to the city, John Perrin also pointed out something that should give the mayor and his band of development-driven men and woman pause. But won't.

Next year at this time, we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk Settlement.

"Surely," he wrote, "it would be an acute embarrassment for our city, if not scandalous, especially during a bicentenary year, to have failed to safeguard this site."

There's a historic irony about all of this that I'm sure the power brokers in this city have missed.

When the Winnipeg General Strike had been brutally won by the city's business elite, they decided to put the boots to the geographic heart of the strike, by building on top of Victoria Park.

When the construction of the condo that sits across from the proposed hotel was approved a few years ago, they did it again.

Now, apparently, a former premier of our province, and our mayor and city council are going to finish the job.

Play the pipes loudly, today boys.

And bang the drums slowly.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2011 B1

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