The date chosen for the proclamation of the Upper Fort Garry Heritage Provincial Park Act, designating the development surrounding the last remains of the former Hudson’s Bay Company fort as a provincial park, is itself historically significant. July 15 is the day on which Manitoba entered into the Canadian Confederation in 1870.
The designation of the Upper Fort Garry Heritage Provincial Park in downtown Winnipeg was announced by Conservation and Water Stewardship Minister Gord Mackintosh.
“The province supports the development of the park and will continue to work closely with the Friends of Upper Fort Garry, the group leading the drive for the park’s creation,” said Minister Mackintosh. “This new act and the project couldn’t be more timely, as they coincide with TomorrowNow: Manitoba’s Green Plan, which promises to protect and preserve our resources for Manitobans today and in the future.”
To date, the province has contributed over $4 million to acquire the land and toward the total park development costs of $9 million.
Land purchased by the Friends of Upper Fort Garry, which will be part of the provincial park, was gifted to the province this year and will be managed, secured and maintained by the Friends of Upper Fort Garry and The Forks Renewal Corporation.
“This is an historic day as the proclamation ensures this heritage site will be owned by the people of Manitoba and will be a public park forever,” said Jerry Gray, chair of the Friends of Upper Fort Garry. “We are grateful for the support of the Manitoba government in making this park possible. Construction is well underway and we invite everyone to attend the opening of Upper Fort Garry Heritage Provincial Park on September 27.”
The passage of time has not been particularly kind to Upper Fort Garry. Over 130 years ago, the Hudson’s Bay Company knew Upper Fort Garry was a lost cause. Their Winnipeg fort was not destined to become the centre of the embryonic city, as powerful forces were aligned against them — predominantly politicians and business leaders originally from Ontario with no sense of the Company’s and the fort’s contribution to the history of the community.
By 1862 and the founding of Henry McKenny’s store at the corner of Portage and Main, the HBC knew it was fighting a losing battle. All future attempts by the HBC to have federal government buildings located on its 500-acres of land surrounding the fort had been thwarted — this by the “indignation” expressed by Winnipeggers bent upon making their community the commercial centre of the newly-created city.
The triumph of Winnipeg was completed when the federal government announced it would be building a new post office, land office and customs house in central Winnipeg instead of on land it had earlier set aside in the HBC reserve at Fort Garry.
In the 1860s, the HBC began to recognize the futility of its cause and allowed the historic fort to deteriorate through neglect. “Fort Garry in Ruins,” announced a headline in the Manitoban, dated May 27, 1871. “Not exactly the entire Fort, reader, but a considerable portion of the stone wall fronting on the Red River. It has been threatening a tumble down for a long time, and lest it might fall into the Fort, some men were employed by the Company to throw it down so that it would fall outside. The bastions and a portion of the wall immediately adjoining them, still stand, but in decidedly bad condition. The side gate entrance to the Fort, fell among the ruins.”
Thirty-two years later, an English writer for the London Daily Bulletin toured the city and stumbled upon what remained of the historic landmark. He wrote: “Then you stroll out to this very everyday twentieth century place and follow the street a little further, till you observe something standing alone on your right — a tiny building of rough stone. It is not twelve feet high, and you have seen bigger and better buildings put up to stable two or three horses.”
The English writer was able to encapsulate the significance of what he saw and place the fort into an historical context, more so than local residents, who allowed the “tiny building” to diminish in importance through indifference.
“Yet the photos of it have met you at every corner of the town, and you stand and gaze at this old relic — this one bit of history in this world of newness — Fort Garry, the nucleus from which Manitoba’s metropolis roaring around you has sprung; Fort Garry, the old headquarters of the great Hudson’s Bay Company you have just left; Fort Garry, the destination and crown of Lord Wolseley’s famous three months’ march through the terrible forest, when, as Colonel Wolseley, he put down the Red River rebellion under Louis Riel in 1870.”
It was the English traveller who wistfully gazed upon what had been and commented: “Modern commercialism and the Philistine allurements of land-gambling, have, alas! caused the pulling down of the greater part of the old fort, so that all one sees is little beyond the gateway. Sentiment woke when it was too late, and now Winnipeg mourns forever the act of vandalism she permitted in her midst.”
Most of the rubble from the fort’s stone walls had by 1880 been used for building foundations to create the “modern commercialism” decried by the English writer. Showing its own attraction to “the Philistine allurements of land-gambling,” the HBC by 1877 sold off most of its 500-acre reserve as lots around the fort to reap a $2-million profit.
By the fall of 1886, four of the largest structures still standing on the old fort site were sold at auction by HBC for just $292. The former Government House netted a paltry $100 as firewood. With just the Governor’s (north) Gate remaining, the HBC, a year later, gave the site to the city for the creation of a “public park.”
Amazingly, today’s plan to rejuvenate the area surrounding the sole remaining gateway, by creating an “historic” park, was first envisioned in 1912. An October 5, 1912, Manitoba Free Press article reported that a number of “prominent citizens” had approached the HBC with a proposal to “restore the walls, four bastions and four gateways ... and erect a pavilion in the centre.” But it would take several decades before the Friends of Upper Fort Garry stepped forward to implement a plan for a park.
Gray, when describing the friends’ plans for the site a couple of years ago, said: “The park’s design demarcates the foundations of the original buildings and walls. Interpretative installations will be placed within the foundations with other commemorative and interpretative installations throughout the park.”
While Winnipeg “mourns forever the act of vandalism she permitted in her midst,” the new provincial act does ensure that the historical significance and what little remains of the original HBC site will at last be preserved and protected for posterity.