Wandering Around Winnipeg in Manitoba

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Supposedly, Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, is in the geographical center of North America and it's not a difficult city to move around in on foot.

Photography by the authors

Supposedly, Winnipeg is in the geographical center of North America.

Originally, at the junction of three rivers, it was an aboriginal meeting place with more than 6,000 years of history. In the 1800s it was the hub of the fur trade. By 1890 it was the grain capital of Canada and by 1920 “the Gateway to the West,” a key site in early railroad development. Its statues pay tribute to Queen Victoria, female aviators and a man who was the model for James Bond. Its gardens remind us of England.

“Charlie Chaplin slept here” is a true statement but the hotel making that brag is now a pool hall. In one museum Buffalo roam and in another Renaissance and Inuit art sparkle. Winnipeg has a church built inside another and a legislative building with secret signs worthy of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. It has walking tours through the old town of a relatively new city by European standards.

And if all this isn’t enough, Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba in the heart of Canada’s sweeping cloud-dominated prairies, is working on a museum that may well excite the world: the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

If you want to see some of this, VIA Rail Canada, with whom we came to this great city in the grasslands and endless plains of Canada, allows a three-hour opportunity to stretch your legs. You can even take an O Tour bus trip. On the day we arrived the train had run three hours late but we had had booked two nights in the Delta Hotel.

Let’s talk about O Tours first in case that’s all the time you have. Passengers simply get off the train, walk to the back of the station, line up, verify the guide will be speaking in English (Manitoba has the largest French-Canadian community west of the Great Lakes), pay the fare ($30 at the time of our visit) and board the bus.

Winnipeg is not a difficult city to move around in on foot but here are some of the sights you’ll see on the O Tour stops.

The O Tour

The Capitol in Winnipeg is called the Manitoba Legislative Building. It’s no surprise to see Queen Victoria sitting there or bison guarding the stairs. Those icons summarize Manitoba’s history. The dome roof may show a simplicity that’s refreshing in politics but there is an apparent secret here of Masonic symbolism — discussed in a book, by Frank Albo, an art scholar who has been called “Canada’s Dan Brown.”

Two miles to the east lays the old and new St. Boniface Cathedral. Originally built in 1818 and rebuilt in 1832, 1860 and 1906 — and almost gutted by yet another fire in 1968, the façade left after that fire is now incorporated in the present church. The cemetery holds the grave of the controversial figure Louis Riel, who was hanged for high treason in 1885 after the failure of the North-West rebellion he led against the Canadian government.

Our coach takes us 10 miles west to the sprawling Assiniboine Park with its English gardens, silent havens after hearing about famous hangings. More than 200 of the beautiful bronze sculptures by celebrated Ukrainian-Canadian Leo Mol stand on display here. The park was created in 1904 by landscape architect Frederick G. Todd, who had studied under Frederick Law Olmstead the designer of New York’s Central Park.

Touring (and eating your way through) the Exchange District

We’d had a great lunch at the East India Company on York Avenue just round the corner from our hotel. We’d eaten light and by 5 p.m. we are hungry again. That is how we discovered Devour the District, a food tour where the guide not only walks you around the turn of the 19th century buildings for three hours, but also lets the local trendy restaurants feed you, too.

Winnipeg has more restaurants per capita than any city in Canada. They were needed in an era when train travel brought so many traveling salesmen across the prairies.

In the aptly named Traveler’s Block we find Peasant Cookery (slogan Real Food from the Land) and in Blufish, the former hardware store of James H. Ashdown, one of the city’s first millionaires. In Hermanos Restaurant and Wine Bar, we find tango dancers on the wall and arrays of empty green bottles as art on the shelves; as a former Brazilian restaurant the bottles used to contain Brazilian wine, and we try Corrientes Argentine Pizzeria in the 1882 Swiss building originally built for greengrocers. And as we waddle, satiated, back to the hotel we pass Ivan Eyre’s statue of North Watch where two figures, a man and a dog created in 80 pieces of bronze, study the north horizon — but we are heading south on Main Street.

Other eats? Check out The Forks, where Winnipeg’s rivers meet. Its 56 acres of shops and small restaurants were recovered from a desperate flooding in 1987 and protected for the future in what Canadians call the greatest public construction since the Panama Canal.

Says a local chatting at out coffee table next day, “Your American rivers are longer than ours but ours are wider!

Wandering at will

A cluster of statues stands on Memorial Boulevard. One is a 1976 tribute to all women of the British Commonwealth who served in the two World Wars. Nearby we find The Man Called Intrepid, a memorial to Sir William S. Stephenson who served in the OSS in charge of communications between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt. Under him worked Ian Fleming who is said to have modeled James Bond on him.

Another monument honors the 130,000 airmen of the commonwealth, U.K., United States and occupied Europe who trained here in Canada to end World War II.

You can see not only statues associated with James Bond, but also murals showing Charlie Chaplin. He was staying at the Windsor Hotel in town when he wrote to his brother in 1919 that he had decided to head for Hollywood. The hotel is now a pool hall and blues building. Other more country-style murals abound as a more rural form of art.

Winnipeg’s museums

Winnipeg, of course, has more sophisticated art. We head for the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Western Canada’s oldest public gallery. We are here to see the largest collection of Inuit art in the world. It compels the thought: can any ethnic art have more meaning, more secrets hidden in what you are seeing than this? Fortunately the artists have revealed a little of themselves in cards below the art. Inuit art is story telling.

Top: Migration 1965 by Joe Talirunili (1906-1976). The artist, then a child, was in a group in Hudson Bay when their ice floe melted. Middle L: Legend of the Northern Lights 2003.Winnipeg Rh Foundation. Three men were out in the night entered an igloo frightened by the wind of the Northern Lights. Told not to whistle one did not obey and the Lights cut off his head. Middle R: Ningiuqvilaaq and Naujavinaaluk 1965 by Davidialuk Alassua Amittu (1910-1976). Naujavinaaluk killed his wife and child, kidnapped the woman Ningiuqvilaaq and escaped his camp in the Belcher Islands. He died of a stomach ache but she survived. Bottom row L: Shaman 1974 by Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974). As a child the artist heard tales of shamans and imagined them with flared nostrils, huge open mouths and asymmetrical eyes. Bottom R: Raven Creation Myth 1988 by Abraham Anghik Ruben b. 1951. Raven is the creator of humankind.

The European art has less of a story. The marble Crouching Venus 1890 by Italian Pietro Barzanti (1847-1917) seems to be warning art patrons about Archduke Maximilian in the 1750 oil on canvas by Martin van Meytens, workshop of Swedish 1695-1770, and the 18th century Dutch cabinetmaker who created the 1740 Cabinet on Chest is just another unidentified artist when visitors pass through in the pace of the 21st century.

The Manitoba Museum won’t allow visitors to rush; there’s too much it wants to show them. We slow down to absorb its offerings from life-sized dioramas that have bison stampeding the perfect reproduction of the famous Nonesuch Ketch, the small 50-ton merchant ship that Zachariah Gillam sailed from Deptford on the Thames in England across the North Atlantic and into Hudson Bay in 1668.

Winnipeg is not content simply to portray its past. Considerable excitement surrounds a museum to be inaugurated in 2014: the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

The museum’s interests will vary from exploring genocide in countries like Guatemala to “examining human rights violations of indigenous peoples in its own backyard.” This is an impressive challenge that a country whose population is the size of California has given itself and it is typical of the Canadian spirit that it has chosen to do this.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.