Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Winnipeg is located at the extreme northeastern edge of the Great Plains, on the bed of ancient glacial Lake Agassiz, at the interface of the Laurentian Shield and Prairies, and at the confluence of two great rivers of the Plains, the Red and Assiniboine. The city centers Canada's eighth largest metropolitan area in a province that centers the country. It is the capital of Manitoba, the so-called Keystone Province, and it is possibly the province more than the city itself that has in the past been more strongly connected with the Great Plains, reinforced by the prominent featuring of the bison as the provincial animal symbol.

Winnipeg itself has always had aspirations well beyond Manitoba and well beyond provincial status. Its early boosters envisaged a commercial metropolis on the Chicago model, serving the Canadian Prairies and the Northern Great Plains. Winnipeg was named during the 1860s for one of the two large lakes to its north. Even though the naming of Winnipeg is thought by some to have been a joke (the name comes from the Cree word for muddy or murky water–the low-lying settlement was prone to flooding and was often coated with gumbo), the name stuck and indeed became a point of pride, especially when the fledgling province, at the city's incorporation in 1873, tried to rename it Assiniboia. The latter actually became the appellation for the young city's first region, extending across most of the southern half of what is now the Prairie Provinces. From its beginning Winnipeg treated this macroregion as its incipient hinterland, casting itself as the independent commanding metropolis.

In 1870 a tiny unincorporated Winnipeg, with a population of no more than a few hundred, became the provincial seat of government simply by virtue of hosting Fort Garry, an early fur-trading hub. Its aggressive business elite ensured that no rival of any consequence would emerge, and to this day Winnipeg enjoys exceptional primacy in the provincial urban system. However, Winnipeg's early ascendancy is mainly associated with the emergence of the Canadian Prairies as the "Breadbasket of the British Empire." The colonial overseers described Winnipeg as the "buckle of the wheat belt" and the "bull'seye of the Dominion."

Winnipegers themselves cast their city in even grander roles as the "Heart of the Continent" and the "Gateway to the West." The years from 1875 to 1915 were indeed heady times: the city enjoyed rapid growth, especially after the arrival of the railway in 1881. Winnipeg's population increased rapidly, reaching 42,340 by 1901. It was then touted, quite plausibly, as the "Chicago of the North"; but it was not to be, and at times it has seemed more likely that Winnipeg would become the "Detroit of the North." Some blame the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike; others point to a particularly long and deep depression following the opening of the Panama Canal. Competition from more westerly cities was certainly a factor.

Winnipeg's star can now be seen to have been in relative decline for most of the twentieth century. Other, more western centers have steadily eroded Winnipeg's initial expansive Prairies hinterland; Calgary, in particular, has eclipsed Winnipeg as the dominant Prairie commercial metropolis, but Regina, Saskatoon, and Edmonton have also played their competing parts. The city has steadily slipped in rank, from third largest in Canada (after Montreal and Toronto) in 1911, to fourth in 1941, to eighth in 1996 (with a population of 618,477). Nevertheless, Winnipeg does possess a remarkably diversified economy, with considerable economic activity–a condition of dynamic stability that puts its now slow growth in a more tolerable perspective.

Many influential Winnipeggers have difficulty facing their distinctly reduced circumstances and in taking a more inclusive provincial perspective. Their provincial brethren often diagnose them as having a pronounced case of "perimeteritis," an inability to see beyond the perimeter highway that surrounds and roughly delimits the city. But this condition is actually still as much one of overlooking the rest of Manitoba as it is the inward looking of self-preoccupation. And, intriguingly, it seems to be leading to an outlook that is much more inclusive of a Great Plains perspective.

Winnipeg boosters now tend to embrace not so much a national but a continental (the Americas) frame of reference, with a more north-south than east-west orientation. For example, the city has hosted the Pan-Am Games twice (1967 and 1999) and is now reconnecting with the Great Plains by its enthusiastic participation in the development of the midcontinent corridor concept, which links Manitoba with Mexico. This concept and Winnipeg's aspiration to become a meeting place on a continental scale have been given expressive form since 1990 in the pridefilled redevelopment of The Forks at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Given over to the railway for much of the city's history, the site is again a humanized place of quality, eliciting considerable affection from current residents as it connects to the city's presettlement Aboriginal roots, a heritage that plays a large part in the future now unfolding.

See alsoMEDIA: Winnipeg Free Press / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Winnipeg Free Press .

Ian Wight University of Manitoba

Artibise, Alan F. J. Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874–1914. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975.

Dafoe, Christopher. Winnipeg: Heart of the Continent. Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 1998.

Morton, W. L. Manitoba: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

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