City ignores Wolseley’s wintry blast of fun Community-created network of rinks, trails on Assiniboine River doesn’t officially exist because of liability concerns, legal expert says

Behind a City of Winnipeg wastewater pump house near the corner of Palmerston Avenue and Aubrey Street, a makeshift staircase leads down the bank of the frozen Assiniboine River.

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Behind a City of Winnipeg wastewater pump house near the corner of Palmerston Avenue and Aubrey Street, a makeshift staircase leads down the bank of the frozen Assiniboine River.

Most of the steps are wood, but the final few have been roughly carved out of the ice and snow. It’s an uneasy descent, despite the guardrail installed by a kindly stranger providing a bit of support.

The reward for making it down to ice below is the community-dubbed Wolseley Winter Wonderland, a two-kilometre, interlocking network of shinny rinks and skating trails built entirely by volunteers.

The area has become a beloved neighbourhood attraction, but its development is independent of — and largely overlooked by — the City of Winnipeg, organizers say.

Legal experts believe the city is reluctant to get involved with the community-led recreation efforts, fearing responsibility and liability in the event someone is injured.

On Wednesday afternoon, 37-year-old Eric Neumann skated back and forth across the length of a rink, clearing snow from its surface with a yellow shovel.

Rules? What rules?

How and how often civic bylaws are enforced on Winnipeg’s frozen waterways is unclear; the city is unable to provide statistics regarding the number of tickets issued in recent years.

How and how often civic bylaws are enforced on Winnipeg’s frozen waterways is unclear; the city is unable to provide statistics regarding the number of tickets issued in recent years.

A city spokesperson did not confirm whether bylaw officers patrol frozen waterways and was unable to provide data regarding infractions involving off-leash dogs, open fires or non-compliant buildings.

While the offences are enforced elsewhere in the city and punishable by fines, neither the Winnipeg Fire and Paramedic Service nor Animal Services agency tracks data specific to frozen waterways, the spokesperson said.

The Winnipeg Police Service, which enforces restrictions on operating motorized vehicles on ice, does not patrol frozen waterways and could not provide statistics regarding calls for service, a spokesperson said.

Winnipeg city council created a new, frozen waterways bylaw in 2014. The document describes frozen waterways as “a public resource with no clear property ownership, zoning permission or limitations, and government jurisdiction.”

The new bylaw clarified the permit process with the intention of opening the ice up to more commercial and public activities. While the rate of bylaw enforcement is a mystery, the rules are clear.

The following activities on frozen waterways require permits:

• Construction of a building larger than 108 square feet.

• Operation of a motor vehicle.

• Activities expected to attract more than 200 people.

• Commercial events charging admission or selling alcohol.

— Tyler Searle

Colourful benches dotted the snow nearby, and in the distance, piles of the white stuff identified a cross-country ski trail still under development. Down river, carefully arranged pine trees enclosed fire pits and offered shelter from the wind.

Cyclists, runners, skaters and skiers sped by. Dogs ran off leash.

Neumann was halfway done before Chris Beauvilain, 43, skated over on a trail from the east.

The pair were neighbours once, but now they are friends; each committing multiple hours every week to develop and maintain the Wonderland network.

People have been building rinks on the ice here for decades, but things took off during the winter of 2020, the men say.

In those early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many in the community were sheltered in place. Unsure of what to do (and with plenty of free time), they took to the river. Rinks and gathering places popped up organically and, soon, community members collaborated to connect them, Beauvilain said.

A group organized informally under the Wolseley Winter Wonderland moniker that year now boasts about 40 volunteers. A core group within that number meet periodically to discuss plans for development and maintenance.

Last winter, they started a fundraising campaign, gathering roughly $4,000 in donations. Volunteers used the money to buy pumps, equipment and fuel, allowing them to expand the trail network by drilling holes into the ice and pumping water onto the surface.

A few of them now routinely maintain trails along the entire southern stretch of the Wolseley neighbourhood.

“The reception has been universally positive. For one, this is a gem. It’s this car-free, active playground for the community. It also connects different communities,” Beauvilain said. “We would love the city to see how many people use this, and not just people from Wolseley or River Heights.”

On busy weekends, it is not uncommon to see more than 100 people wandering the winter playground, he said.

Similar to the Aubrey Street staircase, there are makeshift access points along the river near Omand’s Creek and Telfer, Dominion, Arlington and Canora streets.

Residents across the river in River Heights enter near the intersection of Wellington Crescent and Waverley Street, or at Harrow Street.

In 2021, Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, in neighbouring Armstrong’s Point, purchased a steel ramp for secure river access. The City of Winnipeg later reimbursed the school for the cost.

Wonderland volunteers would like to see all the temporary staircases replaced with similar ramps, but the city is not yet on board.

“The city right now, they are very hands off,” Beauvilain said. “We talked to the city. We include them and they are aware of this. We haven’t heard anything negative from them, it’s just a real reluctance to… get involved.”

The effort is not the only one of its kind on the city’s rivers. The Bourkevale neighbourhood to the west has been creating similar winter infrastructure for years, and other groups exist elsewhere in Winnipeg, said Ross Brownlee, another volunteer.

“It just does wonders for the community,” said Brownlee, 52. “We have suggested (to city officials) that it makes this a real selling feature of our city…. In our history, our forefathers used the river year round. We aren’t re-inventing the wheel here.”

Councillors Cindy Gilroy and Sherri Rollins have both advocated for the city to support community-led initiatives on its waterways.

Rollins helped secure funding for the Westgate ramp, and Gilroy previously encouraged the city to explore the potential of developing a year-round river access point in Wolseley.

Ultimately, the city’s reluctance to get involved may come down to a fear of liability and complicated government processes, Gilroy said.

Earlier this month, The Forks announced the full opening of its Nestaweya River Trail, which stretches six kilometres, from Churchill Drive on the Red River, to Hugo Street on the Assiniboine.

The Forks is responsible for monitoring and maintaining the ice, with staff travelling the length of the trail multiple times each day and providing updates online. The organization does not pay for additional liability insurance, said Zach Peters, communications manager for The Forks.

“The river trail is use at your own risk, but we do our due diligence to ensure all portions are safe and secure. If not, we put up signage and close off sections,” Peters said.

The city does not provide any funding toward Nestaweya, but it has installed and manages access points along the route, including near the Norwood Bridge, Wellington Crescent and Hugo Street and at Gerald Lynch Park.

The Forks is responsible only for the access point at The Forks Historic Dock, Peters said.

Beyond ponds used for skating in a handful of parks, the city does not monitor ice conditions on rivers, waterways or ponds through the winter months, communications manager David Driedger said.

“Due to the possibility of rapidly changing ice conditions based on weather, currents, runoff, etc., residents are urged to use caution around all frozen waterways,” he said.

There are plans for more-secure river access points along the Nestaweya Trail; a ramp is scheduled to be installed near Bonnycastle Park within a few days, he said.

“I know that the city has been really nervous about the ice because there are portions that really are not safe,” Gilroy said. “It’s scary for us to say, ‘Go out and use (the river)’ unless we are constantly monitoring it, and right now, we don’t have the capacity as a city to do that.”

She acknowledged Wonderland is positive development for the community.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “It gets people out and about and engaged…. I just want people to know they are going really at their own risk when they go out on the river.”

Driedger wouldn’t say whether the city is aware of the community-created rinks and trails, and there’s a legal reason for that, said University of Manitoba law professor Michelle Gallant. An acknowledgement could put the city at risk of a lawsuit in the event of a mishap.

“If I were the city, I probably wouldn’t want to talk about it either,” Gallant said. “When someone gets injured, they’ll sue everyone, and when you’re suing, you look to whoever has money, and that’s usually the municipality.”

An injury or death on the ice would fall into the realm of negligence law.

“I think there’s a lot of people who could be at fault if something happens,” Gallant said. “The standard of negligence is, basically, if it seems like something is foreseeable, you’re liable…. If you’re putting structures on there or you’re encouraging folks and somebody gets hurt, you’re going to get sued.”

Generally, negligence lawsuits resulting from injuries in public spaces target municipalities, but a lawyer could potentially make a case against community organizers, as well. People voluntarily assume risk when they step on to the frozen waterways, which provides some defence, but it may not be enough to ward off legal action, she said.

Complicating things further is the fact government jurisdictions over waterways often overlap, Gallant said.

The provincial government uses the Shellmouth Dam and Reservoir, located roughly 400 kilometres west of Winnipeg near the Saskatchewan border, to control water levels on the Assiniboine. As the water levels change, it can cause the frozen river to flood.

Two weeks ago, volunteers arrived to find sections of the river covered in slush, Brownlee said.

In an email Thursday, the federal government said the province is the lead when it comes to waterways within city limits.

Later, the province said the city is responsible for controlling water levels within the city, but could not comment on who might assume liability based on the “hypothetical nature” that somebody might be injured on the ice.

Neither the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service or Winnipeg Police Service could provide data on how many times they’ve responded to calls for service on frozen waterways since 2019.

The Winnipeg police department does not patrol on the ice, a spokesperson wrote in an email.

“Our river patrol is only active during the summer months,” the spokesperson said. “The WPS responds to calls on frozen waterways as they come in.”

While the Free Press was chatting with Beauvilain on the Assiniboine Wednesday, two police officers passed by on an ATV. They later stopped upriver near the Bourkevale Community Centre and posted signs warning of thin ice.

“To me, if we can make something better than it is, then we are serving the community. I think liability, although maybe its intent is to serve people, gets in the way of great things,” Brownlee said.

Beauvilain said while he isn’t concerned about liability issues, he would like the city to establish a precedent to protect people in the event of an injury.

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