The Rivers

The power and potential of Winnipeg's waterways

Part 2 – A new beginning

By Randy Turner


There are remnants of a campfire from the night before, but no campers. Just a few beer cans and, for some reason, a large pile of cannibalized computer innards strewn under trees nearby.

Robert Galston has always been intrigued by this secluded stretch of land on the banks of the Red River, at the north end of Waterfront Drive. As a former crisis worker for the Main Street Project, Galston was aware many of the city's homeless would find their way to the riverbank on summer nights.

They have done so since at least the 1930s, when the area was called the Hobo Jungle.

They do so, still, in 2015.

Now a master's student in city planning at the University of Manitoba, Galston sees the hidden patch of real estate through different eyes. He scans the skyline rising over the river on a hot, muggy day in June — a postcard that includes the new condos of Waterfront Drive, baseball stadium Shaw Park, the Riel Esplanade, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to The Forks buildings beyond.

"Some of the best views of downtown — now there's the museum and the bridge and newer highrises," Galston said, standing on the riverbank on a sweltering summer afternoon. "It's the most stunning view of the river, and the only people in Point Douglas that see that view are the homeless people in the Hobo Jungle.

"People will pay $500,000 to be on the back end of those condos on Waterfront Drive, but you could be right here looking out over the entire city. (This) view is still up for grabs. And it's free.

"It's astounding how much potential is there and how little has been acted upon," Galston said. " In any other city, it would have or be well underway by now."

Robert Galston provides a walking tour of Point Douglas.

There's no doubt Winnipeg's relationship with its rivers is complex. Since 1826, when the fledgling Red River Settlement was virtually destroyed by the first of many floods of the century, the Red and Assiniboine rivers have been a source of well-documented death, disease and mass destruction. To this day, despite millions invested in a floodway, dikes and diversion projects, each spring in Manitoba often coincides with anxious eyes following water levels and projected runoff from the Red River basin.

Because if there is one absolute certainty about the unpredictability of the Red and Assiniboine, it is this: they will flood again.

In turn, Winnipeggers have largely forsaken the brownish-green conduits that are the very reason for the city's existence, at least in terms of development. Once the lifeblood of an emerging prairie city, the Red and Assiniboine — and their intersection in particular — withered as sources of economic necessity in the 20th century. Often they were the enemy within.

But what if Winnipeg's rivers could be the catalyst to re-envision not just The Forks, but — by extension — great swaths of the city? What if, some 200 years after the Lord Selkirk Settlers first set down tenuous roots, the rivers might once again become the centrepiece of the future?

Well, look around. Slowly but surely, just like the Red and Assiniboine themselves, it's happening already.

The view of the rail yard at The Forks in 1960.

In the office of Paul Jordan, CEO of the Forks Renewal Corporation, there is a blown-up photo, circa the late 1970s, which he believes is undeniable proof Winnipeg cannot just return to its roots — where the river's waterfront is an instrument of community interaction — but a largely untapped economic lynchpin.

That photo is a barren lot, but for abandoned tracks and two old stables, which in the late '70s was a neglected patch of real estate populated by joggers and, yes, more homeless camps.

Of course, the photo in question is of the area now called The Forks; a parcel of land now a year-round magnet for both tourists and locals alike.

"In 1990, this place was nothing," Jordan said. "Nobody even knew where it was. By 1992... it became important. It happened, boom, just like that. It's human nature. Any great city, where do you go? You go to the waterfront. New York. San Francisco. Boston. Vancouver. All those places.

"That's where it started, and that's where it has to be, in terms of capturing the soul of a city. The historic junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers has been doing that for 6,000 years.

"It's what's going to make this city interesting," Jordan added. "It's going to make it livable. People have always gravitated to waterfronts. We've got a lot of exceptional waterfront... we just haven't been using it well."

Forks Renewal Corporation CEO Paul Jordan discusses waterfront development.

Jordan and The Forks have come a long way since the early 1990s, when the former began working at the fledgling site as a landscaper and the latter emerged from a dormant stage that lasted more than half a century. There is a ballpark, a children's museum, a market of shops and restaurants, a hotel and, most recently, a national museum.

Today, The Forks receives upwards of four million visitors a year, peaking with 100,000-plus on Canada Day. The introduction of a river skating trail and warming huts during winter months has resulted in occasions where The Forks attracts as many visitors on a weekend in February (20,000-30,000) as in July.

"The Forks is a perfect example of what that type of development can do for the psyche of a community," Jordan said. "This has really become Winnipeg's biggest community club. People think it's always been here. They have a passion for it. But really it's only been here 25 years.

"But what it did for the city — not only for its psyche, but national and international profile — I think is quite exceptional and that needs to continue."

The Forks opened in 1989. Now, 25 years later and with the addition of Esplanade Riel and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, it has become the signature vista for Winnipeg.

Harry Finnigan, who worked for the North Portage Development Corporation in the mid-1980s, and later became director of the city's property and planning department (2002-07), believes The Forks was ground zero for a physical and philosophical re-engagement with the city's major rivers.

"I think The Forks is an incredible story," said Finnigan, who founded the consulting firm of MacKay, Finnigan and Associates. "When Winnipeggers have visitors, they take them to The Forks, right? Now it's the (CMHR), the skateboard park. All the stuff that's happening is something that Winnipeggers are proud of."

Just as notable, Finnigan said, The Forks project was launched at one of the lowest economic ebbs in Winnipeg's history.

What The Forks did… (it) totally raised the bar in terms of design and expectationsHarry Finnigan

"There was a time, particularly in the 1980s, when it was really depressing times," he recalled. "We had the recession. And city council was ready to approve anything. Any fly-by-night developer could come along, and any development was better than none. What The Forks did, in spite of the challenges of when it started, (is) totally raised the bar in terms of design and expectations.

"The Forks has taught Winnipeggers the difference between schlock — bad development — and what can be. Every time I go to The Forks, I think back to the days I was running through it and there was nobody there. Except maybe another person running, and grass."

The road map for development along the Red River stemming from The Forks can best be described as a encouraging creep. For example, Waterfront Drive north of Pioneer Avenue was a gravel road in the late 1990s, used mostly for illegal parking. The "drive" fronted dozens upon dozens of derelict buildings in the Exchange District. The concept was to buy up property under the city's CentreVenture office and solicit private investment for condo, office and retail development.

"It was a logical place to start, because the river was something that you could only get in part of the downtown," said CentreVenture Development Corporation president and CEO Angela Mathieson. "It was a unique asset. The question was, "How do you take that (Forks and Waterfront) and pull it into the city?

"The Forks was, 'Hey, Winnipeggers, here's the river. Look what fun we can have here.' Waterfront Drive... was really saying to the investor community, 'Hey, look what our downtown can be like.' And it's spilling back into the rest of the downtown. So I think (Waterfront Drive) was absolutely critical for the entire Exchange District. It became the front door to this entire area."

According to Mathieson, the $9-million investment in Waterfront Drive has spawned, to date, $58 million in private investment.

"That's an incredible return," she said. "So the river has had an amazing impact. It's such an amenity."

The transformation has been equally sweeping across Waterfront Drive on the east side of the Red, in the neighbourhood of North Tache.

As with both The Forks and Waterfront, the North Tache of the last century was a mixture of city warehouses, junkyards and a seen-better-days social hall called Le Rendez-Vous and the Tourist Hotel.

"That," said North Tache resident and former city councillor Dan Vandal, "was basically our front porch to St. Boniface."

Today, the driveway into St. Boniface is the Esplanade Riel bridge, casting a shadow on North Tache. Warehouses that used to clog the waterfront have been replaced by the Elzear-Goulet Park, which opened in 2008. (Elzéar Goulet was a Red River Colonist and Louis Riel supporter who, on Sept. 13, 1870, was spotted by enemies of the rebellion in Winnipeg and tried to escape to St. Boniface by swimming across the Red. Goulet was reportedly hit in the head by a rock thrown by his pursuers and drowned — just another example of a historic relationship between the city and the rivers that run through it.)

North Tache has transformed from warehouses and junkyards to a million-dollar view.

Meanwhile, the hotel and social hall are being replaced by a series of new, high-end condos that run up to $600,000 or $700,000 for 2,000 square feet.

"Those prices are unheard of in north St. Boniface," Vandal said. "But they're selling out. We've got people in the park every day; walking their dogs, jogging. We even had a movie shot recently. It's great animated living now."

Vandal believes North Tache could serve as a microcosm of what can happen — and hasn't happened — on the vast majority of riverfront property.

"We're not Vancouver. We're not Toronto. Development takes time," he reasoned. "But over a long period of time, it will happen. I mean, we've been working a long time on this.

"With the advent of The Forks, it became a planning philosophy; let's reclaim our rivers in the old areas. In the new areas we're advanced."

The key, Vandal said, is to encourage developers to invest in riverfront projects that carry more risk (and reward), with additional costs inherent in building on the banks of an unpredictable waterway.

For example, Vandal said in years past, developers would never drop a dime on building high-priced condos in North Tache. But now, "There's a market there, and they're making money."

The Excelsior cost $17 million. It was considered a risk at the time, but has since spawned other riverfront condo projects.

In the last decade, in fact, more than a dozen condominiums have been erected along Waterfront Drive, North Tache and the Exchange District. One of the most expensive was the Excelsior — two eight-storey towers of 48 units — which opened five years ago, built by Sherwood Developments.

Sherwood president Fausto Pereira said his company had previously erected riverside condos on St. Mary's Road (102 units, completed in 2004) and the Renaissance in St. Norbert (48 units, completed in 2009). The Excelsior, which cost $17 million, was considered a calculated risk — largely because of the dearth of residential spaces overlooking the Red.

"Winnipeg is totally underdeveloped," Pereira said. "Here we have this magnificent river (but) so much (is) industrial zoning and older (private) houses."

Pereira admits cost is a major factor — both for prospective developers and consumers. Want to make money? Hammer through a residential neighbourhood in south Winnipeg.

Sandhu Developments is building a $30-million, 24-storey condo on the banks of the Assiniboine River.

There's no river-stabilization costs and wide-open spaces. Said Pereira: "Developers don't often find it beneficial, just because of the additional cost. So they're not stepping up as much."

Karampaul Sandhu understands those extra costs. The president of Sandhu Developments has sunk $30 million into a 24-storey, 91 unit D Condo on the banks of the Assiniboine, just east of the Manitoba Legislative Building.

That investment includes everything from riverbank stabilization to waterproofing the foundation. "It definitely adds hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the scale of the project," Sandhu said.

Still, 70 per cent of the condo units have been sold at between $300,000 and $700,000.

It's hoped quick and easy access to the riverwalk will be desirable for new downtown residents.

"We feel the desirability of living on the river and having direct access to the riverwalk will offset the costs," he noted. "Customers will pay for that."

Then Sandhu reasoned: "You know, we live in a flood plain. It's something we have to deal with. I wouldn't say it's something to be feared. We should take advantage."

But the dichotomy of Winnipeg is a city built on the rivers remains largely indifferent to them, as though they are some sort of last resort. It's like urban sprawl on the perimeter and urban crawl in the heart of downtown.

Pereira cites Point Douglas (both North and South) as a poster neighbourhood for Winnipeg's reluctance to use the Red River as a catalyst for development. Yet Point Douglas is also symbolic of the waterfront decline; once a neighbourhood of thriving industry, home to some of the most prominent citizens, has for decades served as Winnipeg's Baltic Avenue of properties.

Point Douglas was once home to thriving industry and prominent citizens.

"It makes my heart cry," Pereira said. "It doesn't make any sense to me at all. And we have areas downtown that are sitting half-empty. One has to wonder if there's any political will to take on these areas.

"That's how big cities become big cities, making the core area vibrant," he added. "What we're doing is developing suburbs. That has exactly the opposite effect. We've moving people away from the heart of the city. If we don't reverse that, I don't think we'll ever have a vibrant city centre."

Pereira concedes waterfront development in Winnipeg is hamstrung by private ownership, relative to other cities such as Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon. And the historical reluctance to build on the banks of the Red and Assiniboine — in addition to the cost/risk ratio — makes government involvement, in terms of vision or incentive, a key component.

In fact, both Waterfront Drive and The Forks were born from multi-level government involvement.

"You need the wherewithal from the city to start amassing those properties," Pereira said. "You need political vision. We need politicians who are willing to take a risk. It boils down to governments taking initiatives.

"You go back a few years, and there was a couple parking lots (at The Forks), a few buildings and no tax dollars. Now there's $80-$100 million in redevelopment.

"It's not even that difficult when you think about it," he added. "You just need someone to do it. You're always going to have opposition. If you were proposing to build heaven downtown, you're going to have atheists who say, "I don't want it. It's not for me.' It's human nature. You're going to have NIMBYs."

Now it can start to move people back downtown and into different neighbourhoodsAngela Mathieson, CentreVenture CEO

Mathieson, meanwhile, believes at least some building blocks are now in place in the heart of the city to reconnect with the rivers: A anchor at The Forks, soon to be bolstered with residential and commercial development — that now has tentacles up Waterfront Drive, integrating into the Exchange District, and across the Esplanade Riel into St. Boniface.

It's a start.

"It goes back to our history," she said. "The river was used to move people and goods around. Now it can start to move people back downtown and into different neighbourhoods."

"I think it's a shame where in so many parts of our city we've turned our back on the river, or it's exclusive. It seems to be one or the other," Mathieson added. "The development of Waterfront Drive was, in my mind, the reopening of the Exchange back to the river. It was always linked to the river because of transportation, but not after the de-industrialization of the river. Now it's a residential district, it's becoming more of a neighbourhood. It's certainly an entertainment (area) with all of the theatres. Now it's back facing towards the river, which I think is great."

Mathieson estimates the Exchange District has now reached about 50 per cent of its development potential.

"Confidence is great. But we still have a lot of work to do in our downtown. It's very easy for it to slide back. Very easy."

The development of Waterfront Drive allowed a neglected area to thrive as a neighbourhood.

But if the rivers are a relatively untapped source of economic possibilities — a natural asset that once nurtured the city's very existence — the question must be asked: what's taking so long? Even more puzzling, why has there been a collective instinct (outside of The Forks) to develop everywhere but along the waterfront?

Again, let history be the guide. Even through the first half of the 20th century, the roles for the rivers were starkly disparate, depending on the season.

"In one sense, it was where you dumped sewage," Galston said. "(When) horses employed by the city died, they were dumped on the river in the winter and would sink in the spring. So there was that relationship, as a dumping ground. It just didn't have any economic importance anymore."

In winter, however, Winnipeggers flocked to the Assiniboine, along the legislative grounds. Noted Galston: "There were hockey rinks, curling rinks, tobaggan slides, tents. It was almost like a little midway on the river."

But city growth left the downtown core for the suburbs, post-1950, the rivers became an afterthought. Except, of course, when the word "sandbag" was ever mentioned in spring.

"Rivers weren't sexy back then, so we turned them into sewers, turned our buildings away from them," noted Jordan. "Then people moved out to the burbs. They lost that connection."

For the most part, the rivers were shunned.

Over the decades, Winnipeg turned its back to the rivers and viewed them as obstacles.

"When I was a kid, the river didn't even exist in Winnipeg. You drove over it on the bridges, but you never interacted with it," said Brent Bellamy, a senior design architect for Number TEN Architectural Group, which is currently involved with development projects at The Forks. "For so long, it didn't exist in our consciousness.

"If you look at all the major cities in the world that have waterfront, the waterfront is the centre of the city, it's the economic driver, it's the tourist attraction. And for Winnipeg, it wasn't."

"It was the industrial highway when it started. Then once we began to live around it, the unpredictability essentially made it unlivable. So we had to turn our backs on it."

Scott Stephen, a historian for Parks Canada who specializes in The Forks, reasoned once the Red and Assiniboine had lost their function as providers, their role in the community became that of takers: flooding and riverbank erosion the most prominent and costly.

"The rivers have always been there," he said. "But for a while we just couldn't be bothered to engage with it, outside of sandbagging. And fetching out dead bodies. It's the same thing as downtown in general. Once you get into that mindset, it's really tough to get out of it."

But generations of abuse can become systemic. Well-known ceramic artist Jordan Van Sewell has lived on the Red, just east of Waterfront Drive, for almost 30 years. In fact, when Van Sewell needs inspiration, he wanders about 80 paces down to a spot on the riverbank to the exact same place — the aforementioned stretch once known as the Hobo Jungle.

That's what it's become, a metaphorical dumping ground for all the issues.Jordan Van Sewell

"This is the million-dollar view," he said. "A quarter of a century I've been coming down here."

Yet to this day, Van Sewell curses those who continue to dump practically anything — appliances, building materials, TVs — in what he considers his picturesque backyard.

"I've had people come down my street, in their little grey ponytails, and their weekend hobby trailer, and dump their (garbage) down there," he fumed. "I mean, where for even a second did you think that was OK that you could dump (crap) in people's neighbourhood on the riverbank? I get really annoyed when I see that abuse go on. When did we begin to allow that? It's a general disrespect for nature, really.

"That's what it's become, a metaphorical dumping ground for all the issues. We just throw them in the river and they'll go away."

Van Sewell was only getting warmed up.

"The river has always been here," he continued. "The people have always been here. Shouldn't there be a coexistence? We're the people in charge, but we don't see that — without respect, without forethought, without a vision — it will continue to be a detriment instead of an asset for the city."

Now 61, Van Sewell can recall a time, in his youth, when his parents would take four-day trips on the S.S. Kenora to York Factory. Or regularly seeing the Paddlewheel Queen and Princess — on the Red since the mid-1960s — as they became iconic fixtures of the Red.

But the Queen and Princess, which once moved some 80,000 passengers in the 1970s, are both in dry dock now, put out of business by repeated flooding and dwindling customers.

The Paddlewheel Queen was a draw to the river. It's currently being demolished.

The Paddlewheel Queen was a draw to the river. It's currently being demolished.

Van Sewell believes the disconnect isn't just a loss of economic opportunity, it's unhealthy.

"We can continue to ignore this river. It might change colour, it might change smell," he said. "But it'll always be flowing by. But why aren't we capturing this resource... and find ways to make it work for the people? The quality of life is enhanced by having this river here.

"People say, 'What's the value in the river?' Well, it's producing oxygen, it's insulating, it's keeping the wind down. It's doing all those things nature does. It's egress to downtown," the artist reasoned. "It's a spiritual high to walk through a green space like this before you get to the concrete of downtown. It's all these intrinsic qualities that nobody cares about. People say it's hippie bullshit or something. No. These are the things that make a community, that make a city great.

"If we were to follow what should be done; cleaning up the river, enjoying it, then we could be the one great city that the sign coming in says," Van Sewell added. "The citizens of Winnipeg, this is their river. When you're denied access to it, you're denied not only part of your history but part of your future as well."

Of course, if you think the Red and Assiniboine have been mistreated by their human occupiers over the years, they have nothing on the Seine.

The confluence of the Seine and the Red. Winnipeg's third river is often forgotten in the development discussion.

A small tributary that meanders into the city beginning in south St. Vital, then through St. Boniface before spilling into the Red, the Seine’s survival in an urban setting has been a constant struggle. In fact, in the early 1970s, the Seine was a trickle, overrun by blight and discarded washing machines.

Monica Giesbrecht, a principal landscape architect with HTFC Planning and Design, noted all of Winnipeg's rivers possess their own character. But the Seine was on life-support.

"They're very different environments," Geisbrecht said. "The Red is this big crazy thing that runs super-fast. The Assiniboine is this windy, shallow, very comfortable kind of space. And the Seine's even better. But for the better part of the century, it's where people dumped their garbage or left their construction debris. It was a cesspool."

Added Glen Manning, also a principal at HTFC: "There's never been a threat that the Red or the Assiniboine would disappear. But there's always been a threat that the Seine would disappear, that it would just become another channel that choked."

Manning and Giesbrecht have spent much of their careers trying to dream up practical methods and designs for Winnipeggers and their waterways to coexist. It's not easy.

There's the limits of public access to waterfront. There's environmental concerns. The ever-present and expensive reality of riverbank erosion.

But they're convinced preserving and providing access to waterfronts — while carefully balancing the need for green space (parks and recreation) with the desire for greenbacks (condo developments) — is critical to big-picture development.

It's recognizing our rivers as a cultural and recreational and ecological resourceMonica Giesbrecht, landscape architect

For example, the Seine has historical significance as a tributary for historic pulp mills, the most notable owned by the father of Louis Riel, Jean-Louis.

"We're talking about history," Giesbrecht noted. "Learning about your history while also accessing the river is a big opportunity. Because a lot of your historic sites are actually along the river.

"If you look at the larger context, it's recognizing our rivers as a cultural and recreational and ecological resource. You go to the river to learn about flooding and ecosystems."

And the vast majority of Winnipeggers might not even be aware of the Bois-des-Esprits ("Woods where the spirits dwell"), a 117-acre hidden forest the Seine winds through just off South St. Anne's Road. It's the home of Woody, designed as a spirit carved out of an elm tree in 2004.

There are beavers at work, deer roaming, and on any given day the hammering of pileated woodpeckers and chickadees wafts through the trails — just a few yards from adjacent suburban enclaves.

"You tell a developer that," said Michelle Kading, "and they start to salivate."

Kading is executive director of Save Our Seine, which for decades has fought to keep the struggling river both alive and healthy. The battle has been upstream all the way.

Woody, the spirit tree, is tucked away in Bois-des-Esprits, a 117-acre urban forest in south Winnipeg.

SOS had to intercede to protect the Bois-des-Esprits from being paved over, too, back in the early 2000s.

"We need to be aware of what we're giving up," she said. "Yes, development in some places is good. But we need to make sure that's the best use of that land. We have to think 30 to 40 years ahead. That's why we fight so hard to keep accessibility. Because then people will come.

"There's a certain value in development that leaks to the river," Kading added. "People want to benefit from the recreations and the healthier aspects. You have to very carefully develop those things. It would be tragic to give up any more of that natural space to economic development."

Save Our Seine represents a constituency that wants to nurture the waterfront, but not for development. The Forks, they would argue, has been "run over by cement."

"We don't want this happening along the Seine River," said SOS president Denis Gautron. "If you bring people to the river for economic reasons, that means cement."

In the past, Kading been branded a communist by frustrated developers. But she said: "If that's being a communist, I'm proud to be a communist."

For Save Our Seine executive director Michelle Kading, preserving green spaces is paramount.

"It's not all about money," Kading added. "It's valuable in more important ways. Green space and forest are development, too. It's a different way of looking at the world. A developer can look at a parcel of land and say, 'What a waste.' And I can look at the same parcel of land and say, 'What a treasure.'

"The city needs to be about more than tax revenue. That's the tragedy."

Kading warned the history of the rivers, as they relate to the city, can be lost in the rush to build for the future. "It's those stories of the past that make us who we are," she said. "If we don't celebrate and record them, they're lost. We point to words on a sign now because that's all people will see."

Perhaps that's why the line from Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi is not lost on Kading. Paving paradise to put up a parking lot.

"That rings so true because it still happens, that push and pull," she acknowledged. "It's like tearing down a forest and naming streets Elm and Ash and Oak."

Few people spend time on the Winnipeg rivers, but it provides a completely different perspective of the city.

Of course, there are ways to connect with the rivers without laying down cement to the riverbank. Or erecting condos on every available square inch.

For a relatively small number of Winnipeggers, just being on the river is the most intimate connection possible.

Janine Stephens (nee Hanson) has spent far more hours and kilometres on the Red than she can calculate, ever since she first began training with the Winnipeg Rowing Club in 2000. In 2012, Stephens won an Olympic silver medal as a member of Canada's women's eights rowing team, but some of her fondest memories in the water are on the Red, at dawn.

"There's mornings when you go out and there's no one else around and you're watching the sun rise from the river over the trees, it's got this really peaceful beauty to it," said Stephens, now a spokesperson for the Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Commission. "Those are some of my favourite mornings. You just take a moment and stop to appreciate what's around you. When you get on it in the spring, and there's this raging current you're working against, when you get to the turning point and begin to flow with it... the feeling of the speed with you flowing with the river is always unbelievable.

"I appreciate the quiet beauty that it brings, but also the great strength that it has."

Fellow club member Brandi Smith describes heading out to train in the pitch black of the early morning.

"You come out on the water and it is dark and the sun's coming up over the bridge," Smith said. "You kind of get a different experience for what Winnipeg can be. You get a totally different perspective. You can go down to the human rights museum, and the bridges. It's really just a nice view of what Winnipeg is.

Rower Brandi Smith and others offer unique perspective of rivers.

"I'd love if the city was more orientated to the river where we could have more accessibility and we could use trails and whatnot. I mean, anybody who comes out seems to enjoy it and gets more of an appreciation for what's here."

For some, access to and appreciation of the region's rich history is just a few paddle strokes away. Brigade de la Riviere Rouge, a re-enactment group that celebrates the fur trade era, is often featured during special events, such as royal visits. But members don't wait for formal occasions to enjoy time on the water.

"When we're in the city and it's a beautiful day, we like to jump into the canoes and hit the Red River, and sometimes the Assiniboine or the Seine River," said Anne-Marie Thibert, whose voyageur name is Barthélemy LaPoitrie. "Having the rivers here in the centre of Winnipeg — we're all just so blessed to have this destination right at our doorstep, basically."

Clearly, the ways to reconnect with the rivers vary as much as the opinions as to 'How?' Ultimately, there may never be complete consensus to the latter question, but if you ask those whose job is to brainstorm ways for a more prosperous tomorrow — of the dozens of subjects interviewed for this project — not one disagreed with the basic concept that Winnipeg needs to look backwards to go forward.

Bellamy, for one, argued that until the rivers once again are true citizens of Winnipeg, and not just passing through, the city is wilfully disregarding a potentially valuable ally. It's finally time to make peace, he believes.

"The future of our city is to get back to where we were when we started, to embrace the river and make the river an amenity," he said. "It's the greatest lost opportunity that the city has. It's the last piece we ignore.

"Honestly, it's the No. 1 lost opportunity. Almost every neighbourhood in the city has a river in it. So it affects land in every single community. It's another way to connect all those neighborhoods."

There's a rediscovery of the river as a constant defining feature of this cityRobert Galston

Galston agrees, and not just because of the economic potential the Red and Assiniboine could offer.

"There's an economic desirability rivers have now," he said. "We're seeing that all over North America (in cities). It's a place to build condos because it's beautiful. But I think there's a deeper sense that's starting to happen — especially at The Forks in the winter with the trails and the warming huts — of recognizing the importance of the river. Not just for the riverfront views, but also... the river is why Winnipeg has been a place for thousands of years. And why the city grew up here originally.

"There's not only a rediscovery of the economic value of the river but there's also a rediscovery of the river as a constant defining feature of this city. I think that's where our attitude and view of the river will change in a more philosophical sense."

Safe to say Winnipeg is now at a crossroads made of water. Then again, it always has been.

You see, the question hasn't really changed from when, nearly 300 years ago, an explorer and stranger to this place, Pierre Gaultier La Vérendrye, was sitting in a birchbark canoe at the forks of the two rivers. For La Vérendrye, the direction he was headed was a mystery, too. So he would turn to his Cree or Assiniboine guides, the men who came before, and ask...

Where do we go from here?


< Part I Part III > © 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, Robert Galston, Nicholas Schraml, Chelsea Thompson and Kristin Pauls at The Forks North Portage Partnership, Archives of Manitoba, Brigade de La Riviere Rouge and Winnipeg Rowing Club.