University student Ralph Marciano was a Grade 6 student when he and fellow students at Clifton School first heard about Upper Fort Garry.
At the time, the location was still the site of a curling club and a gas station, the old fort's western gate almost eclipsed by the modern buildings and there was a real possibility the last trace of it would be torn down.
"We chose this fort as a site we wanted to keep and to me it stood out. It was in the heart of Winnipeg, near The Forks and it kind of sucked it was to have been torn down for a bunch of condos," Marciano said.
His social studies class focused a year of study on the old fort, even recording a song in tribute.
Saturday as a first year student at the University of Manitoba, Marciano returned to the site as the Friends of Upper Fort Garry unveiled the first of a three-phase development that will celebrate the fort's singular significance in the province's history.
The gas station and the curling club are gone, replaced by a park, at 100 Main St. between Broadway and Assiniboine Avenue.
Provincial cabinet ministers announced a $1-million grant Saturday to cement efforts to transform Upper Fort Garry as the focus of the Métis nation and the birthplace of Manitoba in downtown Winnipeg. The ceremony to open the newest provincial heritage park was attended by dignitaries from the Manitoba Metis Federation (MMF) and the park's principal developers.
In announcing the grant, Multicultural and Literacy Minister Flor Marcelino said the sponsorship was drawn from Manitoba Lotteries and Liquor and earmarked for a Heritage Wall, part of the park's next phase.
"The heritage wall symbolizes the original west wall of the Fort and it will give visitors a new way of interpreting our history. It will be one of the largest displays of public art in Canada," the minister said.
The donation delighted the principal developers, a group of the province's most prominent academic luminaries, industry leaders and elder political statesmen who have spearheaded the fundraising and design of the 1.4 hectare site.
The original fort was demolished in the 1880s, leaving the one stone gate from Upper Fort Garry still in place.
The group, known as the Friends of Upper Fort Garry, still have millions of dollars to raise to complete the park, including the heritage wall and a $13-million interpretive centre.
"It depends on how fast it goes. It's about $15 million and it's a big challenge but we've done this so far and we'll keep going," said the group's chairman, Gerald Gray.
MMF official Ron Chartrand told the gathering the park's primary significance was as a Métis location.
"Upper Fort Garry is the birthplace of the Métis Nation," Chartrand said. "It's here in 1869 that the Métis introduced what's been described as the first bill of rights... this will be the site to showcase the Métis national heritage centre."
The project has been the focus of debate, with the province's Scottish community expressing disappointment over plans to focus on the former Hudson Bay Company fort as a place of significance to the Métis, without including the importance it holds for the province's other founding partners, including their forefathers.
Senior Manitoba cabinet minister Gordon Mackintosh met that issue head-on in his remarks, saying the Scots will get their time in the sun later on.
"As for the Scots," said Mackintosh, "I'm assured that as the next phase unfolds... the Scottish role will be fairly portrayed. But let's be clear. Unlike too often in our history lessons, when one perspective was all there was, we must incorporate other equally important perspectives. I'm reminded of this imperative from my most Scottish grandmother," he said.
To appreciative chuckles from about 100 guests, the minister poked gentle fun at his grandmother's tendency to consider everyone who was not Scottish as a foreigner in Canada.
One kilted highlander at the event said he arrived not knowing whether he would be welcomed or treated as a pariah. He said dignitaries walked by him without acknowledging him, despite knowing him personally.