There is absolutely nothing like it anywhere in Canada.
Toronto may have its Hollywood North version of a Canadian Walk of Fame but, like the original model found in Los Angleles, it is star-struck, primarily honouring entertainers.
To see how otherwise ordinary citizens from virtually every walk of life have made extraordinary contributions to their community, the only real option is to leave Toronto and journey to the Formal Garden in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park.
In the park is a tree-lined avenue where some 30 sculptures are found of community-minded individuals whose impact has been far-reaching without them having to leave home and head for the bright lights of another city or country. Those honoured in Winnipeg’s most-visited park range from politicians to businessmen to artists to writers to educators to ground-breaking research scientists.
“There are so many things that happen in the city — some I agree with some I don’t ... This is something all citizens can appreciate and be thankful for,” said Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz last week during a special ceremony at the Hotel Fort Garry, announcing the induction of another two more individuals into the Winnipeg Real Estate Board-established Citizens Hall of Fame.
“I can’t think of a better honour than to be commemorated in sculpture,” added Katz.
The recent induction of Dr. Henry G. Friesen and James Ashdown brings the number of individuals in the Citizens Hall of Fame to 33.
Dr. Friesen, who discovered the hormone prolactin and was a driving force behind locating the Arlington Street level-four virology lab in Winnipeg, is an inductee in the contemporary professional category.
Ashdown, a pioneer businessman and politician, is an inductee in the historicial business/public affairs category (see Ashdown’s story, pages 4 to 6). This category is made possible through a partnership with the Winnipeg Foundation and support from the Manitoba Historical Society.
“Twenty years ago,” said Citizens Hall of Fame chair Bill Burns, “the WREB created this quite unique and very worthwhile recognition program by inducting former Mayor Stephen Juba as its first inductee. The sculptor of Steve Juba’s impressive bust was none other than Leo Mol, who went on to become an inductee himself in 1990.”
Former Winnipeg Mayor Bill Norrie, a 1995 inductee, said he came to know Dr. Friesen best “for his vision, tenacity and leadership in acquiring the virology lab for Winnipeg.”
“It’s possible to do the very best research in Winnipeg ... Winnipeggers should know that some of the very best scientific breakthroughs are being made here,” said Dr. Friesen, who is a past-president of the Medical Research Council of Canada and the recipient of the Canadian Medical Association's highest award.
Dr. Naranjan S. Dhalla, also a world-renowned researcher and himself an inductee into the Citizens Hall of Fame (2000), said Dr. Friesen’s discoveries have been of “paramount importance,” especially in the area of growth hormone which is now benefiting children around the globe.
Dhalla described the recipient of the Champion of the Order of Canada as “a living legend in the field of genome and the treatment of infertility ... His commitment to promoting health research is unrivaled. He has made a difference.”
A graduate from the University of Manitoba’s medical school in 1958, Dr. Friesen said his induction caused him to think of 18th-century explorer La Verendrye, who in the 1730s and 1740s set out to find the “river to the west” that lead to the Pacific.
“La Verendrye and I share a passion to explore the unknown,” Dr. Friesen added. “To break new ground.”
Although La Verendrye was mistaken in his belief that the Missouri River would lead to the Pacific, Dr. Friesen said that wasn’t relevent. “It’s not necessary where you end up, it’s the direction it takes you.”
He said they both sought terra incognito, the unknown land. In Dr, Friesen's case, his pursuit of terra incognito took him in a different direction than La Verendrye. Dr. Friesen wasn’t filling in the gaps in the maps of North America like La Verendrye in the explorer’s era, but filling in the gaps of the map of the human condition.
Dr. Friesen said these gaps were vast when he started out in medicine in 1958. His chosen field of research was “truly terra incognito,” he added.
“As a result of the inductees’ pursuits, they have made Winnipeg a better city,” said WREB president Walter Boni.
“I believe more and more Winnipeggers will come to appreciate the importance of the Citizens Hall of Fame and the need to honour the accomplishments of these extraordinary inductees,” he added.
Boni said a debt of gratitude is owed to former WREB past-president Harry De Leeuw for having the foresight in 1988 to promote the formation of the unique program to honour Winnipeggers who have made a significant contribution to the city’s quality of life.
Burns said the uniqueness of the Citizens Hall of Fame was brought home to him when he recently visited Assiniboine Park.
“A woman from Toronto (admiring the busts of inductees in the park) said to me, ‘We have nothing like that.’
“In a jovial way, I asked the woman, ‘How’s the quality of life in Toronto?’”
Burns said occasionally, when viewing the busts of inductees in the park, he pauses to contemplate what life in Winnipeg would be like without the contributions made by these individuals.
“It would be quite different,” he said — and not for the better.