Honouring Winnipeggers

“It should be a no-brainer. What we’re seeking doesn’t cost anything.”

Indeed, Bill Burns, chair of the Winnipeg Real Estate Board-established Citizens Hall of Fame, is absolutely right.

It is a no-brainer to allow the other side of the avenue in the Formal Garden of Assiniboine Park, which is now home to busts of inductees into the Citizens Hall of Fame, to be used as yet another location to honour outstanding Winnipeggers. At present, the avenue has busts on pedestals with plaques, outlining the inductees’ contributions to the city, flanking just one side — the area the city has given the committee permission to use.

“There’s simply no room left,” said Burns at a special ceremony honouring the induction of Dr. Henry Friesen and James Ashdown into the Citizens Hall of Fame. The induction of two more Winnipeggers who have made an outstanding contribution to the city’s quality of life will eventually bring the total number of sculptures by local artists on display in the park to 33 — a few of the inductees have yet to be portrayed in bronze.

The WREB is presently in discussions with the staff of Assiniboine Park for permission to use the other side of the avenue. Burns felt the presence of Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz at the special ceremony last week at the Hotel Fort Garry was an opportunity to ask the mayor to provide a helping hand in these discussions.

“There would be a pathway of statues,” said Burns. “You enter one side and progress to the other. If we get permission, the program will have space  until at least to 2040.”

Assiniboine Park has not always been home to the sculptures of the Citizens Hall of Fame inductees. 

When the program was first established 20 years ago, with former Mayor Stephen Juba as the first inductee, the busts were stationed just outside of the mayor’s office at city hall. This location meant that few Winnipeggers actually had the opportunity to view the busts or know the story behind the inductees who had made so many contributions to their city.

The WREB then lobbied the city for a location along the Assiniboine Walkway, which was felt to offer a better opportunity for the public to see the sculptures. This request was readily granted. 

The problem was that the walkway was continually flooded and the public rarely saw the busts of inductees because they were underwater each spring and sometimes well into the summer. 

Another problem was that the busts were subject to vandalism. In fact, a couple of busts were stolen from their walkway home, although they were eventually recovered, following a publicity campaign.

The WREB then cast its gaze about for another location. That’s when the suggestion was made to use Assiniboine Park. As Winnipeg’s most popular city park, the feeling was that the inductees would be there to immediately greet the pedestrians and cyclists entering the park via the east-side gateway.

There is still a problem with the occasional act of vandalism — three pedestals were pushed over in the spring, though none were damaged — but the area is constantly patrolled and fully in public view, which makes it less susceptible than other locations in the city. Their new home still does not make them immune to vandalism, but it does offer the best chance of the busts surviving for future Winnipeggers to view.

By their very nature, vandals have no respect for private or public property nor the people the busts are meant to commemorate. A sad truth.

Perhaps, they would better appreciate the Citizens Hall of Fame if they noted the words of Dr. Arnold Naimark, an Order of Canada recipient inducted in 2003, who said: “I’m deeply grateful for this great honour. It may sound like a cliche, but no matter what awards one receives, it’s the one from your community that is extremely gratifying.”

Or the words of Carol Shields, inducted in 2001, who chose to attend her induction ceremony despite being in a battle with life-threatening cancer (she has since passed away), who said: “When I first came to Winnipeg, I felt it was part of my voyage out and my voyage home. I felt immediately at home in this city.”

“They (the 33 inductees) could have lived anywhere, but they chose to adopt Winnipeg as their home, and then distinguished themselves with so many accomplishments,” said Burns, during the 2001 ceremony inducting Shields in the contemporary category, and William Fonseca in the historical category. 

During this ceremony, 35 of Fonseca’s relatives, including those from as far afield as Kingston, Ontario, and Vancouver and Kamloops, B.C., were in attendance, adding credence to the significance of being inducted into the Citizens Hall of Fame.

Burns was right, as both Fonseca and Shields were not born in Manitoba, both came to Winnipeg from the United States.

“There are so many things that happen in this city — some I agree with some I don’t ...,” said Katz at the special ceremony last week. “This is something all citizens can appreciate and be thankful for. I can’t think of a better honour than to be commemorated in sculpture.”

Perhaps the significance of the program being available to any Winnipegger who has made a contribution to the city’s quality of life is best summed up by an anecdote from Dr. Naranjan S. Dhalla, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000, along with the late CanWest Global founder Israel Asper.

Dr. Dhalla related that when the two were viewing their respective busts in the Formal Garden, he turned to Asper and claimed to be unworthy to be associated with such a distinguished individual.

“You’re so rich and I’m so poor,” he said to Asper.

“Doctor, we both have the same amount of pigeon poop on our faces,” Asper assured Dr. Dhalla, while assessing the collection of droppings left on both their busts by the ubiquitous birds.