Duff, and his ditch, get their due

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LAST Saturday, in a public ceremony at The Forks, the Red River Floodway was formally designated as a national historic site. This designation, which falls within the authority of the minister of national heritage, acting on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), is the latest addition to significant number of Manitoba places, persons and events that have been recognized as being of national significance.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/08/2003 (6966 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

LAST Saturday, in a public ceremony at The Forks, the Red River Floodway was formally designated as a national historic site.

This designation, which falls within the authority of the minister of national heritage, acting on the advice of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), is the latest addition to significant number of Manitoba places, persons and events that have been recognized as being of national significance.

Previous designations include the Inglis Grain Elevators, the Neubergthal Street Village, Lower Fort Garry, the Fort Garry Hotel and the Exchange District; persons like Billy Barker, J.W. Dafoe, William Hespeler, E. Cora Hind, Lord Selkirk, Louis Riel, Sir Clifford Sifton and J.S. Woodsworth; and events such as the creation of Manitoba itself, the signing of Treaty No.1, the Winnipeg General Strike and the winning of the vote by women. Many of these are virtually household names to most Manitobans and should occasion little wonder that their impact has been nationally significant.

The same could, no doubt, be said of the Floodway — Duff’s Ditch. There were, however, two things about this designation that were somewhat out of the ordinary. The first is that, by conventional standards, the Floodway is of relatively recent construction — indeed the normal rule for consideration of such sites is that at least 40 years shall have passed since construction, and 2003 is the 41st year since construction of the Floodway actually began. In the circumstances, when the board first looked at this project four or five years ago, it might have concluded that more time was needed before the impact and significance of this project could reasonably be assessed.

The research paper prepared for the board, however, was both thorough and compelling. It reviewed the history of flooding in the Red River Valley, noting among other things, that the worst flood actually recorded — that of 1826 — would have completely inundated what is now Winnipeg. Indeed, a marker now on The Forks site, showing the water levels of 1826, provides a chilling reminder of how vulnerable the area has been. The paper also reviewed extensively the impact of the 1950 flood in which, though the dikes held, there was very substantial property damage and dislocation of a significant part of the population.

The paper was also a reminder that the 1950 flood was regarded as a national disaster and, indeed, as the worst flooding disaster in Canadian history to that time. Its national significance was attested to by subsequent federal involvement in flood compensation, in building dikes and in a major study of Winnipeg’s flood control requirements. This study proposed a 26-mile ditch east of Winnipeg as a means of diverting a substantial part of the river’s flow around the city. And, though the government of the day endorsed the principle of the diversion, there was no broad agreement on how to proceed, nor on the capacity of the public purse to sustain such a project, nor on whether any such project would actually work. With the election of the Duff Roblin government in 1958, the proposed Floodway project proceeded with a major federal contribution to construction costs, a result of Roblin’s negotiations with the Diefenbaker government.

The project was massive — though that alone would not make it a national historic site — and following its completion, the Floodway was put to effective use on 20 occasions, with its greatest test coming in 1997’s Flood of the Century. Working beyond its own design capacity, the Floodway saved Winnipeg and, by conservative estimates, $4 billion in damage and incalculable human suffering. As the report before the national board expressed it:

“Beyond a doubt, the Red River Floodway ranks as an outstanding engineering achievement, but its significance rests not so much in its scale, construction, or the physical properties of its structures, as in its design concept, function and socio-economic impact, as well as in its symbolic importance to Canadians.”

Indeed, it is in no way fanciful to say that national commemoration of the Manitoba experience with flooding and the Floodway acknowledges humankind’s endless struggle, only rarely successful, to tame the forces of nature. And within the Canadian experience, the Floodway story was an extraordinary one.

The second unusual thing about the ceremony lay in the fact that, given the passage of time involved in making historic assessments, there is rarely present anyone directly associated with the place, person or event being commemorated. In this case, however, participants in the ceremony included Duff Roblin, the man whose name is indelibly associated with the Floodway. In characteristically modest terms, he reviewed his role in the enterprise and acknowledged the many contributions of others, including then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.

“I say to one and all, I am glad to see this day,” was perhaps Roblin’s most heartfelt observation: a sentiment that was — and will be — widely shared. This national historic commemoration is, of course, of the Floodway as an outstanding engineering achievement and not of persons or political perspicacity. Yet, it nonetheless speaks to these things. The story of Roblin’s sometimes lonely struggle for the Floodway, of the mockery with which his advocacy was sometimes met, and of his ultimate vindication, is a thrice-told tale. But it is one that bears repeating, for it testifies to the proposition that personal vision and political courage can, should and do earn and enjoy the thanks of a grateful posterity.

William Neville is the Manitoba member of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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