Victoria Park — city threatened to close the diminitive downtown gathering place and convert it into an industrial site

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

“‘Take away the park?’” inquired one little girl in dismay ... where would she go to play if the park was destroyed.

“‘Take away the park?’ she reiterated in utter incredibility. ‘They can’t do that? They won’t close the park, will they?’” the little girl asked a Winnipeg Tribune reporter (article published on July 29, 1922).

Actually, that was the intention, although closing Victoria Park had not been formalized by either the parks board or city council.

The park at the foot of Rupert’s Avenue, between James Avenue and Pacific Avenue, was being considered as a potential site for a Winnipeg Hydro standby plant.

It was one of Winnipeg’s earliest official parks and only one of two small-sized parks in the very centre of the city that served the recreational needs of working-class and recently-arrived immigrants, living in its vicinity. At the time, nearly a third of the city’s overall population resided in the central core.

According to the Tribune article, the park had already endured other intrusions that had diminished its already miniature size.

“It has been mutilated to accommodate a gasometer (large gas container) and a high-pressure pumping station (the James Avenue Pumping Station, completed in 1906, which is now a municipal historic site), and now is threatened with extinction unless citizens make their opposition known ... (we) cannot afford to allow one right in the very heart of the city to be laid waste for industrial purposes.”

The newspaper had sent a photographer to Victoria Park to chronicle its use during a single day. The photos emphasized that little children frequented the park “to the utmost of their capacity,” and “had no where else to go” for “breathing spots” in the city’s downtown.

“The sandbox is the mecca of the tinier tots, while the swings and the ‘chute’ (slide) are in constant use the whole day long by those of slightly more advanced years ... Most of these children are of the poorer families; most of them were barefoot, all of them poorly clad.”

The park’s benches also served as a rest stop for local workers during their mid-day break from their jobs.

When the reporter asked some doctors and clergymen what they thought of the threat to the park’s existence, they replied it was “criminal” and “most regrettable.”

“On general principles public parks should not be used for other than purely park purposes,” said Rev. George Laughton, the pastor of the Central Congregational Church. “Victoria Park is a decided asset to the central or down town portion of Winnipeg, and its value will increase in this respect, as years go by.”

The pastor felt closing the park and using it as the site for industrial development would set a dangerous precedent and open the gate for more disturbance of the city’s park system.

Dr. E.G. Bricker said it would be a “thoughtless act” and “nothing short of criminal.”

“Surely, it is realized there are not enough breathing places in the centre of the city for the children, and grown-ups, too, to amuse themselves in and to see Victoria park for the purpose suggested would be an unheard of thing. It would be more. It would be a dirty shame. I don’t think for a moment the citizens will stand for it.”

William “Bill” Ivens, the founder of the Labour Church, MLA and editor of the Western Labour News, was strongly opposed to the conversion of the park because it was a meeting place for labour, and there weren’t enough “breathing spaces” in the city.

He accused civic departments of casting covetous eyes on the park for years. His opinion was that it should remain a park, “but whatever is done, it should certainly not be used for any business purpose.”

Even city Alderman (today’s councillor) Jessie Kirk, a member of the parks board, opposed the conversion of the park into an industrial site.

Over the years, Victoria Park had been a gathering place of great significance for the local labour movement. During the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike (May 15 to June 25), hundreds of trade unionists, unemployed, working-class people and First World War veterans (primarily non-officers) met in the park to hear speakers, plan strategy and discuss the latest developments in the work stoppage.

The park also served as a starting and ending point for marches and parades.

Meanwhile, the business community, represented by the Committee of 1,000, demonized the strikers as “Red Bolsheviks” intent upon a Soviet-style revolution.

On June 5, Mayor Gray issued the first proclamation forbidding parades, saying; “In virtue of the authority vested in me, I do hereby order that all persons do refrain from taking part in any parades.”

The proclamation had stopped the parades temporarily, but Victoria Park soon continued as a rallying point for parades, even after Bloody Saturday, June 21, when strikers and bystanders were attacked by the North West Mounted Police and special constables. Two men were killed and another 27 injured.

When it was heard that another parade was to be formed at Victoria Park on June 24, the park was closed by the city.

After it ended in a defeat for the strikers, Victoria Park was still an important meeting place for workers. In the city where the reins of power were held by the business elite, the park provided the less privileged with a place to vocalize their opinions and their dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is quite apt to say that Victoria Park was the equivalent of today’s Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.

On Sundays, the Labour Church held its weekly sermons, which invariably featured such luminaires as Rev. James Shaver Woodsworth, a Methodist minister, an Independent Labour Party MP elected in Winnipeg North Central and later the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner of today’s NDP. Another prominent speaker was Abraham Albert Heaps, a Social Democrat Party member, city alderman from 1917 to 1925 and later an MP for Winnipeg North.

Yet another frequent speaker was long-time city alderman John Blomberg, who was elected as a member of the Independent Labour Party.

But Victoria Park was far from the exclusive domain of the labour movement. Its central location made it ideal for other activities for people from all walks of life. Children and their parents held picnics in the park. There were athletic contests. Bands played concerts there. The military used the park, while the city police held their annual inspection in the park.

It can be said that Victoria Park, due to its location in the centre of the city, was a convenient focal point for play and social interaction in Winnipeg.

The land on which the park came to be located was originally part of Alexander Ross’ 100-acre Hudson’s Bay Company land grant ceded to him upon the end of his fur trading career by the HBC’s Governor of Rupert’s Land, George Simpson. The grant was near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers at the foot of Rupert Avenue, which he called Colony Farms and was later dubbed Colony Gardens. Ross (1783-1856) was also a merchant, the first Sheriff of the District of Assiniboia, as well as councillor, and a noted local historian.

His eldest son, William, succeeded his father as sheriff, and had been the Red River Settlement’s first postmaster, but died in 1856 at age 31.

(Next week: part 2)