How do you describe The Forks and what it represents to Winnipeg?
As a Vancouverite, my Winnipegger friends would often describe The Forks as “the Granville Island of Winnipeg”; Granville Island being a former industrial site turned whimsical marketplace, beloved by tourists and locals alike. I guess The Forks is like that a bit. I mean, take a look!
However, I’ve come to realize that the this initial comparison oversimplifies things and isn’t entirely fair. While there are some parallels, sure, The Forks is practically the birthplace of Winnipeg, or Manitoba for that matter. It has its own history, and the history here is profound.
Geographically and culturally, The Forks is a meeting place, the confluence of the Assiniboine River and Red River. An important waterway, archaeological evidence suggests aboriginal communities have been using this site for over 6000 years!
The depth of history is extraordinary. The Forks was home to the initial fur trade settlements in Manitoba, when explorer La Vérendrye erected Fort Rouge in 1738, thus establishing the Forks as the birthplace of the Red River Colony. This is the homeland of Louis Riel and voyageur culture!
The railway also played a crucial role, beginning in 1886. The rail yards of the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway Company, the Canadian Northern, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad and the Canadian National Railway once called The Forks home. It’s still very much an active site of rail infrastructure to this day, even repurposed in some cases!
The Forks also witnessed the waves of immigration to Western Canada at the turn of the 20th century. Apparently there were two immigration sheds located here, each accommodating up to 500 people. This multicultural legacy is still very much evident around Winnipeg today.
These days The Forks is a gathering space and the top tourist destination in Winnipeg. I can believe it. The site is a cultural hub, a delightful postmodern mix of new and old. Vibrant marketplaces take up former industrial brick buildings and railway sites. There are restaurants with riverfront patios, pubs, museums, independent theatres – even a TV studio! There are pathways and gardens, public artwork, and even riverfront walkways, although those may or may not be accessible, depending on the level of the spring floods.
I was fortunate enough to not only stay at The Forks during my first three days in Winnipeg at gorgeous Inn At the Forks, but I had some time set aside in my itinerary so I could properly explore its nooks and crannies.
One cool discovery was The Plaza at the Forks, one of Canada’s largest skate parks. Apparently Tony Hawk was skating there a few days before I arrived! My inner 15 year old skater self of the mid-90s was giddy at that fact. Sadly, no Tony Hawk the day I took a peak.
There’s also the still-being-built Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the first national museum established since 1967, with its unmistakable presence along the Red River. Love it or hate it, when it opens in 2014, it’ll be a game changer for Winnipeg. This museum will be the first national museum to open outside of the National Capital Region, bringing a whole new type of visitor to the city.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Unlike your standard museum that starts off as a collection, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) started as a concept: to encourage reflection and dialogue on human rights. When it opens, it’ll be a national hub for human rights learning.
Though still under construction, the Antoine Predock designed museum is already a Winnipeg architectural icon, with its distinctive and unusual architecture inspired by the diversity of Canadian landscapes. According to the CMHR website, this includes vast prairie skies, northern lights and snow and ice, as well as Canadian cultures, including Indigenous cultures. The imagery of icebergs, tree roots, and out-stretched wings influenced the form of the building.
I was lucky to be invited along on a private group tour of the CMHR while it was still under construction, so that I could personally experience the physical space while learning about its goals once complete. First, I had to change into some steel toe boots, a reflective vest, a hard hat, and some fashionable safety goggles.
Maureen Fitzhenry, the CMHR’s Media Relations Manager, led our tour, taking us through some of the CMHR’s 47,000 square feet of exhibit space. When it opens there will be 10 zones as well as a temporary exhibition gallery, theatres, performance spaces, and classrooms.
We started main entrance area, where Maureen gave us the background knowledge on the different types of minerals and rocks used in the designs, as well the symbolism of each architectural component. We got to see the educational classrooms which will be used for student group tours, many of whom will likely come to Winnipeg from across the country and around the globe. As well, the CMHR will be fully bilingual, which will be particularly helpful for students wishing to immerse themselves in Winnipeg’s francophone culture without having to travel to Québec or France.
As we walked from one space to the next, even incomplete and without gallery exhibits, the architecture and design heavily shaped my mood. The thoughtfulness behind every design component was very much evident. We would enter large gallery spaces, often uniquely-shaped with unusual view corridors in the ceilings. Galleries would connect through distinctive tunnels and ramps. Sometimes it was comforting. Sometimes it was disorienting.
The lower floors were dark, embedded with solid rock. In one room, we walked through a corridor of what will eventually be rock pools, reminiscent of volcanic basalt columns.
Maureen explained that the CMHR design uses complex geometry and human rights symbolism in every component, weaving light through the darkness, sometimes quite literally.
Despite the somewhat solid appearance of the museum from the outside, inside the CMHR was a different experience, especially once you reach the immense “glass cloud” that encapsulates the building at the upper portion of the museum. It’s here where we complete our journey from darkness to enlightenment.
Many of the Winnipeggers on my tour were particularly enamoured by the new views of the city that the CMHR offered. It certainly provides a gorgeous perspective to admire the Winnipeg skyline.
In the centre of the museum is a large spiral staircase, seemingly floating in air. This is the tower of hope, stretching 328 feet into the air. With its see-through glass railings, my palms got sweaty as I took the stairs two to three storeys higher, as much as I could go before construction gates halted my journey.
According to the CMHR website, “the tower is an illuminated beacon symbolizing the brightness of enlightenment: the goal of the human-rights journey. Open to the elements, amid massive glass shards, the tower’s observation deck will give visitors the sensation of merging with the sky above, as they are presented with a panoramic view of the surrounding Prairie city vista.”
Even without galleries or exhibits installed, it was an emotional experience just imagining what the completed museum will look like once it opens next year. I can’t wait to come and experience it then.
Back to The Forks
I strolled back to The Forks Market for some lunch. It had been recommended that I check out Tall Grass Prairie, a local bakery and a bit of a Winnipeg institution. Their claim to fame is that they use locally grown Manitoba wheat and grind it in their in-house mill!
I noticed they were also selling some local Saskatoons. Did I come in the right season, or what?
Although I was told that I had to try a Tall Grass Prairie cinnamon bun, I opted for a veggie hummus sandwich, and a wild rice bannock smothered with strawberry jam. It was the perfect thing to eat outside in the Winnipeg sunshine while people watching. Did I mention there was a zumba class taking place in a nearby plaza?
With my lunch digested, I went back into The Forks Market to window shop. I poked my head into a few of the boutiques selling everything from skateboards and Roxy dresses, to indigenous art and books by local authors. I also found myself wandering over into the nearby Johnston Terminal, a former cold storage railway warehouse, now four storeys of boutiques, art galleries, offices, and even an Old Spaghetti Factory.
What was cool was walking up the tower in The Forks Market. While you can take the elevator, if you take the stairs, you can read historical facts about The Forks along the way.
At the top, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the Assiniboine River and the whole city.
The Manitoba Children’s Museum
After lunch I had a visit at the Manitoba Children’s Museum. You know it has to be fun when the building from the outside looks like this!
And you know it’s going to be a good time when you walk through the door, and you’re given the warmest welcome!
As a single lady without kids, I don’t normally find myself in children-specific environments, and yet I can certainly appreciate them and bring out my inner child to appreciate them! So I was stoked to check out the Children’s Museum – a hands-on museum designed specifically for children, to teach them more about themselves and the world around them in an interactive learning environment.
Speaking of environment, the Children’s Museum is located in the oldest surviving train repair facility in Western Canada! Originally built in 1889, it’s yet another way to experience the rich history of The Forks.
There are twelve permanent galleries at the Child all of them hands-on, all of them with specific learning objectives. Some of the exhibits takes place in a train!
One of them, “Engine House” has gears, levels, pipes, and pulleys – all the different parts that make a train work. Kids can press buttons, see coloured lights light up across the train. They can ring the train’s bell and pretend to drive the train. There’s also the “Story Line”, the gallery in the passenger compartment of the train, set up with storybooks, games, and reading tables for those seeking quiet time. The external train is an exhibit in itself, called “Junction 9161”, complete with tunnels through the train that kids can crawl through.
One of the many cool galleries of the Children’s Museum is Time Squared. Apparently it functions similar to a cuckoo clock, with various hidden doors opening every 15 minutes.
There’s Tot Spot, a gallery specifically designed for toddlers. This gallery is entirely fenced-in so the tots can roam free in a safe, enclosed space under the watchful eye of their parents.
Milk Machine is a funny gallery. First of all, it features Janice, the Cow. She’s a real Manitoba cow, not just a made up character.
This gallery mimics milk’s journey through a dairy. Fittingly, it’s sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba. It has this hilarious vacuum tube contraption where you can put in a koosh ball type thing in one end, and you can watch it fly through the tubes at what looks like a million miles a second, and then it will fly out the other end of the tube near the ceiling, falling back on the unsuspecting people below. Kids loved this, especially when there were adults standing underneath.
Did I mention that this gallery also has cow pies?
If I was a kid, I’d probably love Pop m’Art the most. This is the gallery where you can make arts and crafts with fun materials such as paper, felt, cardboard, styrofoam, glue, pipe cleaners, and all sorts of creative odds and ends. It was like one big art class!
The most creative gallery had to be Lasagna Lookout. Where else are you encouraged to play in your food, and climb up a gigantic lasagna? How cool is that?
For water activities, there’s Splash Lab, complete with bubble walls and an interactive water table.
Kids seemed to love sliding down the slide in Illusion Tunnel.
They also seemed to love building skyscrapers in Tumble Zone.
And in the temporary gallery was an exhibit on Robert Munsch, the beloved children’s author who wrote “Love You Forever” and “The Paper Bag Princess”.
As you can probably imagine, it would be easy to spend a good chunk of the day here if you have kids with you. As an adult, I thought I’d maybe be at the museum for half an hour. Instead, I probably stayed over two hours, and still didn’t experience everything. All I know is that the next time I’m in Winnipeg, if I’m in the company of kids, I know where I’m taking them!
Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival
The Winnipeg Fringe Festival is the second-largest in North America, and it had already started by the time I arrived in Winnipeg. The buzz was already significant. “Are you going to the Fringe?!” people would ask me. “You have to see the Fringe!” In the newspapers and in the streets, it was obvious that Winnipeg adored the Fringe Festival. I knew that Wininpeg had a vibrant arts scene, but I didn’t fully appreciate how much the community supported their arts until I had experienced Fringe firsthand. The Fringe wasn’t on the fringe here – it was everywhere!
With hundreds of theatrical performances taking place all over the city, I joined Travel Manitoba’s Dené Sinclair and Kirsten Neil for an evening of independent theatre and unexpected surprises. We hadn’t locked down any plans, which added to our spontaneity of not really knowing what to expect for our evening. But that’s half the fun of the Fringe, I think. You don’t usually know what you’re going to see and what you’re going to get, and the choice can almost be overwhelming . The Festival Program has 88 pages, to give you an idea. And that doesn’t even include the posters…
… nor the performers you’d meet, hawking their performances to the uncommitted on the streets.
Narrowing down what shows were still available, I made the suggestion to see a show by Portland’s The Wonderheads, a physical theatre ensemble who self-identify as specializing in mask, eccentric character and wild imagination. Their show “Grim and Fischer” is about an elderly woman who gets a knock on the door by the Grim Reaper, but she’s not ready to go yet. It’s both whimsical and melancholic, with a level of sweetness.
While we all seemed to enjoy it, we realized that we were craving a show with a little more energy and pizzazz. We wanted excitement, we wanted to laugh. We wandered over to Old Market Square in the Exchange District, home of the Cube Stage, and as I’d learn, the heart and soul of the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. The place was hopping… literally!
There were food vendors set up, restaurant patios, and a beer garden. Some of the streets were closed to traffic, and the feeling was festive and fun.
While watching the free performances from the beer garden, we tried to figure out what to see next. The popular Kingshead Pub had a lineup out its door, and Kirsten would find out the hard way that the performances were sold out. So on to Plan B: Lorax Improv.
We had met the Vancouver improv duo earlier in the evening. Their performance was located in the upper floor of the Mondragon Bookstore & Coffee House, in a cool heritage building, kitty corner from Old Market Square. It was nearby, starting soon, and we had nothing to lose.
Rambunctious, ridiculous, and intense, the improv setting starting off in an audience-suggested “nail salon”. And then these two embarked on a 45 minute performance that left the audience snorting back laughter and shaking their heads at the absurdity of this long-form improv. Unlike typical improv shows that thrive on audience interaction, Lorax Improv halt the crowd participation from the beginning, but morph the initial plot suggestion into an unending flurry of characters and bizarre situations. Wacky and delightful, it was exactly what we needed to end our night.