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The Rivers

The power and potential of Winnipeg's waterways

Part 1 – Sacred ground, troubled water

By Randy Turner


On the afternoon of May 5, 1826, a man named Francis Heron became one of the first European arrivals to witness the unforgiving power of the Red River.

He wouldn’t be the last.

The river, wrote the 32-year-old Hudson's Bay Co. clerk, had just broken free of its icy shackles, and “with an awful rush; carrying away cattle, houses, trees and everything else in its way.”

“The river overflowed its banks everywhere and carried the ice with great velocity to a greater distance from its course than had ever been before seen by the oldest inhabitants,” penned Heron, from the relative safety of Fort Garry. “The houses of the settlers were one instant seen standing, and the next not a vestige was to be discovered.”

“Forty-seven dwelling houses were thus carried off by the first rush, in the short space of half an hour, and many others afterwards from which the wretched inhabitants barely escaped with their lives.”

But the Red was only getting started. After all, Heron and the few hundred newcomers, who had just recently settled the fledgling community at the intersection of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, were about to experience the worst flood of what became known as The Forks in modern times.

Settlers scrabbled for high ground with their most treasured belongings. Sixty families and 200 head of cattle were huddled on a half-acre of land, where May 6 they cowered in a raging thunderstorm.

Then the ice broke on the Assiniboine River, flushing into the Red. The two waterways, linked for millennia and having lured and conspired against human inhabitants of this region for upwards of 6,000 years, unleashed their worst.

“The whole population were again set in motion,” Heron recorded, “flying to such situations as might afford them a temporary security, leaving in many instances their cattle to perish, and most of their other effects to be swept away, happy in escaping with their lives.”

When the water finally began to recede by May 22, the surviving settlers, many now homeless and without any worldly possessions, had come to the conclusion — probably during a night of torrential downpours, lightning and thoughts of Noah — they were finished with this thankless place. Bad enough they struggled through bitter winters trying not to freeze to death; now spring has proven it could be just as mortal an enemy.

Wrote Heron: “By far the majority of these distressed people… who meant until lately to pass the remainder of their days in this country, are now determined to abandon it forever.”

…To this end they surrender their rights to their lands, without condition or reward, not thinking them worthy of either…

Some surrendered rights to their land and simply walked away, selling their furniture and livestock for pennies on the dollar.

It’s not as though settlers who remained had any choice. For most who had escaped oppression or famine in their respective old countries, this was the only patch of land on Earth they owned. They had no money or means to move. And to where?

Undaunted, by mid-June of 1826, these unbreakable pioneers broke land again on the little dry ground that could grow seed. They planted barley and potatoes. They persevered, rebuilding their modest homes, perhaps thinking it couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But it did. Before those crops could be harvested, the vast majority were devoured by grub worms.

Welcome to Winnipeg.

General survey of Upper Fort Garry by Royal engineers (1848).

Some 25 years ago, Sid Kroker was groping along the dirt wall of a hole dug about six metres deep, somewhere between the CPR tracks east of Main Street and The Forks Market.

The archeologist estimated he was looking at a layer of earth buried under 6,000 years of history, give or take.

Kroker spotted a black stain on the surface, the remnants of charcoal. Ah, the archeologist reasoned, an ancient campsite fire? Kroeker reached out and grabbed a fistful of dirt. When he opened his hand, his eyes widened: catfish bones.

“Somebody 6,000 years ago,” he said, “was sitting on the north bank (of the Assiniboine River) having a catfish fry.”

Today, the 71-year-old archeologist is a bit of a historical artifact himself. Kroker is retired now, but spent most of the last quarter-century in unearthing the footprints — sometimes literally — of human existence over centuries at the banks of the Red and Assiniboine.

Kroker and his team have unearthed ancient shards of clay pottery. Hand-carved hunting knives. The bones of buffalo hunts, hundreds of years in the past. But the catfish bones represent the oldest evidence of human presence at what is now called The Forks.

Somebody 6,000 years ago was sitting on the north bank (of the Assiniboine) having a catfish frySid Kroker, archeologist

To put that in perspective, in the fourth millennium BC — around the time our geographical ancestors may have been having their fish fry — the written word was invented in Mesopotamia. The planting and harvesting of maize was just beginning to spread across North America. Horses were domesticated. Silver was discovered.

There is very little known about activity at the forks some 60 centuries ago, except for rare discoveries and the knowledge the two rivers were unquestionably the hub of transportation in all directions to and from the heart of the continent.

A 3,000-year-old campsite, for example, produced a stone blade only found in the Texas Panhandle.

“It’s the centre of Turtle Island (the aboriginal term for North America),” Kroker said. “You can go up to Hudson Bay, with minimal effort. You can get all the way out to Edmonton by the North Saskatchewan (River). Using the Assiniboine, you can go all the way to Calgary. Going east to the Great Lakes, not a problem. You can go south to the Gulf of Mexico with only two portages.”

Added Kroker: “That was the pre-automobile transportation centre.”

Perhaps Kroker’s most notable find was artifacts — from several different tribes found in the same vicinity — that confirmed the long-held oral history of a great meeting at the forks 600 to 700 years ago. Archeologists (during a dig between 1989 and the mid-1990s) found pottery from Michigan, the Lake of the Woods and Brandon — up to nine different camps in all.

“Up until that happened,” Kroker said, “there’s a very Eurocentric view among historians and archeologists: unless it’s written down on paper, it did not happen. They wouldn’t accept aboriginal oral history as real.”

Harpoon copper barbed fishing piece Duck Bay vessel projectile point shell beads biface knife


copper barbed fishing piece

Duck Bay vessel

projectile point

shell beads

biface knife

Audio slideshow: Manitoba Museum's Kevin Brownlee describes pre-European contact artifacts found at the forks.

But the history surrounding the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers isn’t just real, it’s the very reason you’re reading these words right now. From ancient times until the turn of the 20th century, the forks was a magnet for social, economic and spiritual congress.

Winnipeg is here because of the rivers — the city’s very name is rooted in the Cree translation of “muddy waters” — and we have remained here in spite of them.

We have lived off them, been drawn to them, built a city around them. We have been flooded by them, dumped our garbage, sewage and dead bodies in them, become estranged from them and, only in recent years, found ourselves once again embracing them.

Because over those thousands of years, the Red and Assiniboine rivers, along with their tributaries including the Seine and La Salle, have been a constant — mostly stoic, sometimes angry — inhabitants of this place, too.

Patches of ice float down the Assiniboine River. The character of Winnipeg’s rivers changes with every season.

“One of the things about the rivers, on a certain level, it doesn’t make a difference who’s living or trading or working beside (them),” explained Scott Stephen, a historian for Parks Canada who specializes in the forks. “The rivers have their own thing and their own lives, their own identities. The rivers will flood and the rivers will recede… regardless of what people are doing.”

“We can influence that, sometimes quite dramatically, like with the floodway. But the river will keep flooding. It’s been doing that as long as it’s been here and will continue to do so.”

“One of the things I like about taking rivers and making them the main characters of the story is it gives you a different perspective on the human history and makes you realize that maybe some of those dates and names that my high school social studies teacher was so keen on having me memorizing… maybe it’s not the most important thing. It’s that sort of continuity over hundreds and thousands of years.”

The crux of Stephen’s philosophy: Time flows continuously, and people change. Water flows continuously, and the rivers do not change.

The rivers will flood and the rivers will recede… regardless of what people are doingScott Stephen, Parks Canada historian

“I mean, the river was here long before we were, and it’s why we are here,” noted Robert Galston, a master’s student in city planning at the University of Manitoba. “And it continues to do what it does, which is terrifying sometimes. But it’s also just a beautiful constant thing in one of the most flat, unremarkable landscapes in North America. It’s the one natural feature that really shapes us and stands out.

“And it’s not just that (one) river flows through and we built a city around it,” Galston added. “It’s the meeting of two rivers and also the Seine River and the La Salle and all these creeks. It’s all around us. We’re a city of rivers.”

In fact, to the best of their collective knowledge, historians and archeologists believe the intersection has been a gathering place as long as there were enough humans around to gather, after the great Lake Agassiz began to recede some 8,000 years ago.

It’s not exactly rocket science. In an unforgiving, often brutally cold environment, the junction provided unparalleled transportation options. It was a source of wood where there was precious little on a vast landscape barren of trees. It was a hunting ground for game — most notably bison — and small wildlife that were also attracted, like humans, by shelter, water and prey. It provided an unlimited supply of fish, including monstrous 100-pound sturgeon.

The region’s river valleys provided shelter, water and food.

“The things that bring people to the river 6,000 years ago are the same things that bring us there today in recent history,” said Stephen. “Rivers, especially out on the Prairies, are common places to go for shelter in the wintertime. Especially if you’re living out on the bald Prairies, river valleys are often good sources of firewood and teepee poles. You certainly don’t want to find yourself without firewood in the middle of January. That’s as true now as it was 6,000 years ago.”

In basic terms, the forks became a prehistoric version of a shopping mall.

“First Nations of the past were not homebodies. They got around,” Stephen explained. “They were willing to travel hundreds, sometimes even thousands of kilometres for particular purposes. We very quickly get this image of people and their goods circulating extensively around a good portion of North America, and the forks is one of the focal points for that.”

They came, they traded, they feasted, they prayed.

It was a convention based on historical practice and word of mouth spread between First Nations by indigenous traders who served as liaisons between tribes. The common denominator, as always: location, location, location.

“You know that at a particular place, at particular times of year, if you show up there’s going to be a whole other bunch of people there, and it’s going to be amazing, and you’re going to be glad you went,” Stephen said. “We’re definitely looking at hundreds of people and, at certain times, thousands of people coming together. Particularly if there’s a big political or military issue to be discussed. You could easily be looking at thousands of people; men, women, dogs. Probably kind of noisy.”

Indian Teepees, oil on canvas, c. 1908, by Edmund Morris (Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery)

“A lot of times I think back 200, 300, 5,000 years ago and think, ‘How is that any different from what we’re doing now?’ ” he added. “People coming together and trading beaver and rabbit furs from the shores of Hudson Bay, trading them for obsidian from the Rocky Mountain valleys to make arrowheads with. How is that any different from us coming together and shopping at some of the craft and produce outlets at The Forks and gorging on mini-doughnuts? On a really fundamental level it’s the same kind of thing. People are coming together to have fun and do a little business and meet up with old friends…”

“It’s still a destination,” Stephen concluded. “There’s just more mini-doughnuts than there was 5,000 years ago.”

Stephen concedes documenting history now at The Forks is challenging. There were no permanent structures or settlements. There is no written history, only the oral stories passed down from generation to generation in indigenous communities. “It’s a bit of a stretch sometimes,” he said. “And the further back we go the harder that becomes.”

In other words, the past along the site is much like the converging rivers: fluid and murky. Still, Stephen said, the junction contains within its soil an untold wealth of history.

Audio slideshow: Parks Canada's Scott Stephen describes post-contact artifacts found at the forks.

“Every time you stick a shovel in the ground it’s kind of potluck,” he said. “Which is one of the reasons archeologists like places like The Forks. Here’s a spot where you can say there’s a dozen reasons why people over thousands of years are going to show up here.”

“Although, when we started the first excavations I don’t think anybody really expected to find 6,000 years of essentially continuous use and occupation. That was pretty cool.”

Between 2009 and 2013, while digging on small patches of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights grounds at The Forks, archeologists unearthed 191 separate hearths and 400,000 artifacts. So plentiful are the ancient bones and stones, a 4,000-year-old spearhead meticulously carved out of bone just sits out in the open on the fourth floor of the Manitoba Museum research lab, like a staff member’s sandwich.

A member of the archeology team helps to uncover a 3,000-year-old hearth during a dig in August 1991 at The Forks. (The Forks North Portage Partnership)

The dozens of artifacts spread out in the lab are only a fraction of their collection, much like their overall findings represent an iceberg’s tip of the history that remains buried on Forks ground.

According to Leigh Syms, past associate curator of archeology at the museum, the spearhead — with its symmetrical jagged tip — is actually a portal of sorts back to the days of its origin, and the place where it was so thoughtfully hand-carved.

“Here you had a record of people who adapted a variety of technical skill and beauty,” Syms said. “Pride and quality is important.”

And it was the rivers, Syms contends, that allowed indigenous tribes who knew their secrets to prosper.

Because we had that greater interaction of ideas, it gave you a greater richness of inventionLeigh Syms, past associate curator at the Manitoba Museum

“The rivers help because they are a source of richness,” added the veteran archeologist, who, in July, received the Order of Canada for his contribution to preserving aboriginal artifacts. “You have more time to develop that pride if you’ve got an abundant food source. If there’s only one moose out there, and you’re busting your ass to get it, you don’t have the time as opposed to if you’re sitting there with 40 bison to butcher. Or 700 fish.”

“So the rivers were an incentive for the development of large groups with the adequate time to produce the quality they wanted.”

It wasn’t just the tools, though. Archeologists are still uncovering evidence, for example, that corn, beans and squash were being planted in Manitoba dating back to 700 AD — centuries sooner than first believed.

These people knew when the fish were spawning. They knew when and where to harvest the prairie turnips. They knew when the blueberries were ripe for picking.

“Because we’re here, because we had that greater interaction of ideas, it gave you a greater richness of invention,” Syms said. “All of a sudden you’re learning about pottery or about rice. You bring all of these ideas together and it’s more than the sum of its parts. I think that’s what happened here.

“It gets you away from presenting native people as wolves hunting animals. That’s really important.”

A Souteaux Indian travelling with his family in winter near Lake Winnipeg — painting by Peter Rindisbacher, circa 1825.

Kevin Brownlee, who succeeded Syms as the museum’s curator of archeology, agreed with the assertion aboriginal tribes who used the forks as an economic and cultural nexus were undoubtedly advanced and adaptable.

“The resourcefulness of people and the ability to improve and innovate over the generations was certainly a legacy throughout time for anybody living in this part of the world,” Brownlee said. “I mean, it’s not the easiest of environments.

“The more archeological work that’s done, we find the connections are a lot broader than we previously thought,” he added. “These groups were aware of one another. They were actively exchanging with one another. It’s certainly a far cry from what people were thinking 50 years ago about the inhabitants of Manitoba 500 years or 1,000 years ago.

“(The historical thinking is) these are primitive people with primitive technology, and it’s a good thing the Europeans came because they probably wouldn’t have lasted. This is not the cultural backwater that people assumed. The idea that technology here was primitive is such a farce.

“Somehow that their history is less important because they didn’t create pyramids or earthen works boggles my mind. It didn’t make sense to do that here. They had a commerce. They had a trade network that expanded across the continent.”

Brownlee considers the innovation of the birchbark canoe alone — a pliable, light and ingenious form of transportation made from an unlimited resource — to be Exhibit A of a culture shortchanged by a lack of written history and large, permanent settlements.

Especially settlements built on known flood plains. Not mentioning any names.

“It’s funny,” Brownlee said. “The city of Winnipeg is built here. But the First Nations’ use of the area was definitely seasonal because they knew this is not a place to be permanent. They had figured it out. You don’t want to be (here) in April and May (spring flooding). Nobody in their right mind would do that.”

For Brownlee, the story now revealed in the earth of The Forks is personal. As a Cree born in Norway House, but raised in Winnipeg by his adoptive parents, he understands the tension between archeology and aboriginal spirituality, which considers buried bones to be sacred things that should be left untouched.

But those same artifacts, Brownlee contends, can also answer the two questions that are pondered by any culture, during any point in human history: who am I? And why am I here?

“It’s a common concern voiced by elders within the community: you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” the archeologist said. “And the youth of today have lost that connection and touch of where they’ve been. So they’re lost. If you can ground them with a solid foundation, an identity, of where they fit into the overall world, the world’s their oyster.

“Knowing where your roots are is critical.”

Of course, the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers — from 6,000 years ago until the early 21st century — is more than a history of people, it’s a history of place. Somewhere along the line, that shared history melds together.

The Forks, through the ages, has drawn people for a myriad of reasons…

Consider: each winter, a small, circular pond near The Forks Market is where you can find families and children, mostly beginners, taking their first strides on skates. On May 31, 2011, when the Winnipeg Jets’ return to the NHL was officially announced, thousands of Manitobans flocked to that site in an organic celebration. It was also where 30,000 people gathered on May 16, 1995, to fight to keep the original Jets in the city.

That’s the exact spot, for the record, where archeologists uncovered evidence of a mass buffalo hunt some 3,000 years ago, which means a woman in a Jets jersey holding a “Bring Back Teemu” sign in 2011 was standing on the same patch of earth where another woman, circa 1,000 BC, was stretching buffalo hides.

“I have to remind myself that when I’m looking at an arrowhead, there’s a story about it,” Brownlee said. “Is this the one that got away? Was this the giant one (bison) that fed a family on the verge of starvation? We cannot excavate that story, but to be mindful of the story on every single (artifact), every single shard, every arrowhead, every animal bone.”

For Kroker, the most compelling story is the aforementioned Peace Meeting of lore. At the outset of his initial dig, when the redevelopment of the area began in the early 1990s, two elders approached Kroker and told him about a meeting dating back roughly to the 12th century, an oral story passed down through generations. At the time, there was no written or archeological evidence of such a gathering. But Kroker didn’t forget the elders.

It was a few years later when Kroker found several styles of pottery and arrowheads — all believed to emanate from different regions of North America — in the same location. “All of a sudden a light bulb went off in my head,” he recalled. “This is the story they (the elders) told me.”

Sid Kroker displays a plaster cast of a moccasin footprint discovered during an archeological dig prior to the construction of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. (Wayne Glowacki / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Carbon dating pegged the artifacts at 695 years old. There are theories for the meeting, many of which involve negotiations to end a tribal war. However, with proof of a changing environmental climate at the time, Kroker believes the gathering may have centred around a life-threatening struggle for food. Both vegetation and herd-migration patterns may have been greatly affected.

If you ask Kroker what the scene may have looked like during the peace meeting, he immediately replies: “Hell, I’ve dreamt it.”

The archeologist envisions camps scattered in the immediate area, with three rings around a central congress; head chiefs in the middle, then elders and medicine men, then spectators.

But there is a problem with Kroker’s dream. “Couldn’t understand a damn word they were saying,” he chortled.

Clearly, the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine practically preordained the meeting of human beings. That was, and always has been, the site’s power. But it wasn’t until the arrival of European explorers and fur traders, however, it would be considered a place of permanent settlement.

In the fall of 1738, French-Canadian trader and explorer Pierre Gaultier La Vérendrye built Fort Rouge, believed to be the first European structure erected in present-day Winnipeg. It wasn’t exactly a monument to architecture. Said Stephen: “Depending on who you ask, it kind of had a made-in-the-woods-by-elves kind of look about it.’

Still, what was charitably called a fort was a harbinger of the future. La Vérendrye, like almost every European explorer and fur trader who set foot in the heart of a vast and hostile territory, simply followed the true and tested routes travelled by the people who were here first.

“Every half-decent European explorer starts of by asking a First Nations person, ‘Where does that (river or lake) go?’ And they say, ‘Well, here, I’ll show you,’ ” Stephen noted. “There again, there’s that sense of continuity. The Red and Assiniboine are really useful transportation routes no matter where you’re from or what you’re trying to accomplish. It doesn’t really matter why you’re going there. The river doesn’t care.”

(Which is why Stephen chuckles when the words “explorer” or “discovery” are used in the context of European expansion. Like most tourists, they just asked the locals for directions.)

As the fur trade expanded deep into the West, the traditional reputation and importance of the forks as a gateway and economic weigh station became solidified, regardless of who controlled the industry. The fur brigades, just as the indigenous inhabitants before them, migrated to the junction like clockwork for decades.

“It would be a chance to meet people you hadn’t seen in a couple years,” Kroker said. “Parties. Celebrations. The arrival of the fur brigades was probably the biggest social event to have occurred for 30 years. And it happened every summer (circa 1815-1840).”

Clearly, the forks was the region’s largest — if not only — economic and geographical asset. It was an indifferent enabler. In a place with few natural resources and precious little environmental hospitality, the rivers were a source of constant and permanent value.

This answers the question, “Why did Winnipeggers’ predecessors stay?” But perhaps there’s a bigger mystery: “Why didn’t they leave?”

After all, the rivers never hid their raw, destructive and deadly potential. If anything, they were determined early to show who was boss.

In fact, the very first European settlers who planted roots in Winnipeg in 1812, known as the Lord Selkirk Colony, had no sooner established their community on the banks of the Assiniboine and Red when the rivers unleashed their collective wrath.

The devastation, as described by Francis Heron, was just this side of Biblical. By the time the waters receded, the only buildings in the colony left standing were three churches, the residence of the clergy and a house of social prayer.

HBC patrol men, in canoes, spent the next few days “snatching from watery graves” the unlucky settlers who were unable to escape the river’s wrath.

Heron’s stark descriptions of his surroundings were almost poetic.

“The forts now stand like a castle of romance in the midst of an ocean of deep contending currents, the water extending for at least a mile behind them,” he wrote, adding that each night was a “tempest of darkness, lightning, thunder and rain.”

By May 16, even the forts were abandoned, the only stock remaining behind was “ball and rum,” referring to ammunition and alcohol. Where once there was endless prairie, now water and waves stretched for as far as the eye could see, which Heron described as “a lake in a storm.”

“What words cannot express must be left to the imagination to surmise,” Heron concluded, “and such must be the case in the present instance, for this year’s devastations, famine and distress in the Red River Settlement, though well-known by sad experience to the unhappy sufferers themselves, can never be fully described or brought home to the comprehension of those at a distance.”

The book Floods of the Century, written by J.M. Bumsted, author and professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, explains that while a previously known flood of 1776 was just as severe, indigenous inhabitants simply picked up and left.

However, residents of the Hudson’s Bay Company colony were the first settlers to experience what happens when the Red and Assiniboine conspire to swallow up the flood plain whole. Even George Simpson, the Canadian governor of the HBC, was convinced the prospect of inhabiting the intersection permanently was bleak, if not futile.

“Nothing short of ocular demonstration can give a correct idea of the present suffering state of its wretched inhabitants who have had Death staring them in the face whatever direction they look,” wrote Simpson, who arrived a few weeks after the 1826 flood abated. “…and this I consider an extinguisher to the hope of Red River ever retaining the name of a Settlement.”

How’s that for a Tourism Manitoba slogan?

But the settlers refused to leave. And so did the rivers.

A depiction of the St. Boniface ferry in 1879.

In 1852, the children of the original settlers had their indoctrination. In describing that year’s flood, David Anderson, the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land, wrote in his diary: “The deposits of mud under the water made our movements more difficult… It seemed like a recurrence of the plague of Egypt, as the frogs had entered our chambers with the water — no pleasant sight to behold.”

So this was a relationship without secrets. According to Stephen, the message was devastatingly clear.

“(The rivers were saying), ‘This is something that I do, just so you know. If we’re going to be neighbours, living side by side, this is going to happen,’ ” he said. “So the settlers knew what they were getting into. They’d seen literally the worst the river could throw at them, and they stuck around.

“This is a price we’re willing to pay. And sometimes that price is seeing everything you own floating down the river.”

It was a Faustian bargain from the beginning, this place: a mostly peaceful, profitable coexistence punctuated every other decade (18.4 years, on average) by an unavoidable, uncompromising rising of the waters.

Consider: when the CPR first explored putting a railway in the region in the 1880s, chief engineer Stanford Fleming, as documented by Bumsted, recommended the tracks and bridge over the Red be constructed in Selkirk.

“It is futile to assume that the Red River shall never again overflow its banks,” Fleming concluded. “Man is utterly powerless to prevent its occurring periodically, and when it occurs the disastrous consequences will be intensified in proportion to the increased number of inhabitants within the submerged district.”

The Countess of Dufferin arrives in Winnipeg on Oct. 8, 1877, carrying the Canadian Pacific Railway's Locomotive Number 1, the first rail engine to land in Manitoba.

They built the railway through Winnipeg anyway. Why? Because (apart from Winnipeg politicians greasing the palms of the right federal representatives and CPR authorities) the junction of the Red and Assiniboine was ideal for linking transportation routes to the south and west. Just as it had been in 4,000 BC.

Indeed, it often appears Winnipeggers have only been emboldened by the uprisings of the Red and Assiniboine. No sooner had the flood of 1861 receded, for example, than the first house was erected on Winnipeg’s Main Street. It was Fleming’s.

No lives were lost in 1861. In the flood of 1950, one man, Lawson Alfred Ogg, drowned after being washed into a flooded basement while sandbagging on Kingston Crescent after a dike was breached. The 26-year-old was the only fatality despite a flood that forced the evacuation of 80,000 people from their homes, caused $50 million in damages and covered 500 square miles.

At the time, city officials had secretly developed a plan, code-named “Operation Blackboy,” to evacuate all but 75,000 Winnipeg residents, based on models of London during the Nazi bombing campaigns of the Second World War.

It was during the trauma of 1950 that a strange twist developed: floods as drama.

Maybe it was the limited loss of life. Or the fact that floods — unlike hurricanes or tornadoes or blizzards — can be fought by the residents with the most to lose. Man vs. Nature, with a slow-moving, meandering, familiar enemy.

Aerial photos of 1950 flood

In short, it’s yet another shared experience Winnipeggers and Manitobans survive. Since 1826, in fact, residents have repeatedly been forced to unite to save themselves and everything they own from the very marriage of rivers that brought them together in the first place. Now that’s irony, people.

In fact, Stephen believes the historic, love-hate relationship with the rivers — even post-floodway — is part of Winnipeg’s collective outlook.

“I think it comes down to a recognition that, you know what, life is not going to be all roses and sunshine and lollipops and rainbows,” he reasoned. “There are going to be difficult times. There’s going to be crap thrown at us — call it life, call it fate, call it Mother Nature — and we can’t get away from that. What we need to do is enjoy all of the good things. There will be time to worry about the bad things.”

Perhaps that explains Winnipeggers’ well-earned penchant for pessimism. Or frugality, as if we’re saving for some rainy day — or, at least, a very wet one.

Or maybe it’s by now hard-wired into the psyche of citizens who treat three months of summer weather like early parole for good behaviour.

Said Stephen: “We know that this lovely beautiful day in June isn’t going to last. We know that something really big and really bad is going to happen (eventually). And there’s only so much that Duff’s Ditch and sandbags can do. But we’re willing to put up with that because this is a good place to be when times are good. This is a good place to live, a good place to work, a good place to visit.

Winnipeg’s relationship with the rivers is complicated, but the good days far outweigh the bad ones.

“You control the things within your control knowing that something completely out of your control is going to throw everything helter-skelter,” he said. “But you can’t let that get in your way of appreciating or profiting from and being in that good moment. That’s what we’ve done. We don’t have rose-coloured glasses on. We know that there’s going to be some really lousy days. But the good days will far outnumber the bad day, and we’ll enjoy those.”

Ironically, although humans have been living on the banks of the Red and Assiniboine for at least 6,000 years, the relationship status can be summed up in a very 21st-century way: it’s complicated.

As Winnipeg urban historian Randy Rostecki observed: “Our rivers have been used for everything from drinking water to a sewer and everything in between.”

There is history in this community, and rivers flow through it; from a prehistoric catfish fry to the Red River Rebellion to the Paddlewheel Queen to the thousands of immigrants in the 1880s who stepped off the trains at The Forks rail yards.

But the rivers have also long been associated with death, and not just due to floods. What was known as typhoid to the rest of the world in the early 1900s was called Red River Fever in Winnipeg. There’s been homicides, suicides, accidental drownings; dead bodies being pulled out of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in the summer months are a predictable fact of life.

An angel was left behind on Alexander Docks following the August 2014 vigil to remember Tina Fontaine.

The body of Tina Fontaine — the 15-year-old whose death has become synonymous with missing and murdered women in Canada — was found in the Red River. That’s our history with the rivers, too.

Sherry Starr knows. Although born and raised in Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory – just a two-hour drive east of Toronto – Starr has lived in Winnipeg since 1983. She considers herself an adopted Ojibway now.

Starr lives a stone’s throw from the Red, on Luxton Avenue, and not a day goes by when she doesn’t walk its banks.

She thinks about her ancestors, often, and how the river was their lifeblood for centuries.

“It connects you right back to them,” she said. “It levels you off. Every day I’m at the river. Sometimes, I say, ‘Good morning, look at you dancing today with all the light shining on you.’ Some days there’s nothing to say. Some days it’s standing there and screaming, ‘Why?!!’ ”

Every spring and fall, Sherry Starr makes a special offering and asks the river to take care of the souls it’s claimed. (Tyler Walsh / Winnipeg Free Press)

Starr is also known as the Powwow Lady, who regularly performs in ceremonies at the Oodena Circle at the Forks. She fully understands that the water that once gave life to First Nations ancestors is now the place where police – as recently as last month – pull out several dead bodies each year.

“Water gives life, water takes life,” she said.

With that understanding, Starr offers “medicine” to the Red every spring and fall, a mixture of garden plants, maple syrup and tobacco.

“It’s about asking the river to be kind,” she said. “I ask if there’s any souls that come into the river that the river treat them gently and carry them back to the creator as safely as possible.”

So what is Winnipeg’s relationship to the rivers now, some 6,000 years later and counting? Are developments such as The Forks and Waterfront Drive just the beginning? What is too much development? And how will Winnipeggers be interacting with their waterfront 30 years from now?

Stephen, for one, believes if Winnipeggers are given access to the rivers, as with The Forks project, they will go to the water as they have always done.

“It’s a sign we’re rediscovering the attraction of the river as a place to be, a place to live, a place to meet,” the historian said. “It’s kind of like the old explorers saying, ’We discovered this thing.’ Well, it’s always been there. You just stumbled upon it. On a certain level, that’s what we’re doing here. It’s not necessarily new. We’re just re-realizing, ’Wait a minute. This is a pretty cool place we feel a connection to.’

“I like the comparison (where) you’ve lost touch with your best friend. How exactly did that happen? What’s the answer? Let’s reconnect. Let’s remind ourselves why we were best friends in the first place.”

Who knows?

Maybe even get together and fry up some catfish.

Twitter: randyturner15

Part II > © Winnipeg Free Press Credits

Writer: Randy Turner

Multimedia and visuals: Tyler Walsh, Mikaela MacKenzie, Mike Deal
Digital design: Rob Rodgers
Production co-ordinator: Mike Deal
Art director: Leesa Dahl
Project editor: Scott Gibbons

Special thanks to Kevin Brownlee, Colin Mackie, Nicholas Schraml, Sherry Starr, Melvin Starr, Scott Stephen, Archives of Manitoba, Festival du Voyageur, Hudson's Bay Company Archives and Winnipeg Art Gallery.