Manitobans are about to gain access to a historical fort site and it's not Upper Fort Garry.
The old Fort Ellice site, which governments have been trying to buy for at least four decades, has finally been purchased from private interests and will soon be open to visitors.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada is the new title holder of the property near Russell, striking a deal with Arthur and Christine Fouillard, who have owned the land since 1955 and used much of it for pasture for livestock.
The Nature Conservancy will not say how much it paid, but the Free Press has learned the sale price was $1.8 million. That's for the Fouillards' entire 1,416 hectares, including some homes and other buildings. The fort site is only a small portion of that. The Fouillard family will maintain leasing rights to some buildings and pasture for a fee, the Nature Conservancy said.
"This has the opportunity to be a showcase for the Nature Conservancy of Canada in Manitoba in terms of conservation, education and research opportunities," said Winnipegger Ken Mould, whose donation, along with his wife, Sharon, made the deal a reality. Ken, a retired veterinarian, and Sharon, a retired family doctor, donated $265,000 to the sale. The rest of the money came from general grants the Nature Conservancy receives from the provincial and federal governments. The province donates $1.5 million per year.
"It just appealed to us on a number of accounts: Its important history, its songbird population, its attraction physically because of its river valleys. We're both Saskatchewan natives and have Prairie roots," said Mould.
"I think it's a great idea," said Gordon Goldsborough, secretary of the Manitoba Historical Society, who visited the Fort Ellice site last summer. "Fort Ellice is not as well-known as Fort Garry because it was not as busy, but it was a major fur trade post. I think this is important."
"For us, it's win-win," said RM of Ellice Reeve Guy Huberdeau. "We're going to have total access to a piece of property we wanted to begin with." Nature Conservancy has offered the municipality the fort site for $1 on a 25-year lease.
The Nature Conservancy's primary goal is the preservation of a unique ecosystem, said Kevin Teneycke, Brandon-based director for NCC.
The Fort Ellice site is a fusion of sandhill prairie, oak-aspen forest, mixed-grass prairie and aspen parkland. Some endangered species in its ecosystem include the Baird's sparrow, Sprague's pipit and chestnut-collared longspur.
However, NCC is well-aware of the site's historic significance. It has final say over plans being drawn up by the RM for some low-impact development, such as a walking trail and historic markers where buildings were located. The nearby village of St. Lazare also has a Fort Ellice Interpretive Centre.
Fort Ellice was once the main trade and transportation hub between Fort Garry and Fort Edmonton. A regular flow of oxcarts traversed the 427-kilometre trail from Fort Garry to Fort Ellice (Winnipeg's Ellice Avenue is named after the fort, which in turn is named after Edward Ellice, a British investor in the Hudson's Bay Company). The first Fort Ellice was built in 1831 and a new fort replaced it in 1862. The Hudson's Bay Company sold the property into private hands in 1925. The site is on a unique prairie mesa with a sprawling vista overlooking plains where thousands of bison once roamed. It's also bracketed by the Assiniboine Valley and is near the confluence of the Assiniboine and Qu'Appelle rivers.
The Fouillards fought a bitter expropriation battle with the RM of Ellice in recent years. The RM wanted to preserve and open the 116-hectare fort site to the public. The RM was forced to give up the expropriation when its legal costs -- it must pay legal costs for both sides in an expropriation -- grew to nearly $350,000 with no end in sight.
There are no remnants of the fort today other than indentations where the fort posts once stood and some historic grave sites. Both Métis and Dakota people consider the place a significant heritage site. Aboriginal and Métis people settled around the fort for the economy it started.
The fort site has potential as another tourist attraction in northwestern Manitoba with nearby Asessippi Ski Hill and the historic row of wooden grain elevators at Inglis. St. Lazare is about 40 kilometres south of Russell. The RM hopes the Fort Ellice site can be open to the public by next summer.