I’m always amazed at how new ideas are actually old ideas in a similar form. Whether or not the Friends of Upper Fort Garry were aware of this tidbit of historical information, their heritage park and interpretive centre is an old idea that was first proposed in 1912. That’s what I uncovered when researching an article for the Heritage Highlights section of the WREN. Imagine my surprise when I recently encountered the extensive article in the October 5, 1912, Free Press, entitled, Want Fort Garry for Public Park. The article was accompanied by an illustration of the “Proposed historic park for Winnipeg.” The illustration shows the proposal in 1912 bears some resemblance to the friend’s heritage park and interpretive centre which is expected to open in four years time.
In 1912, a “delegation of some of Winnipeg’s most prominent citizens” visited Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) Deputy Governor Sir Thomas Skinner to pitch thier proposed historic park. At the time, the old fort had been reduced to just the North Gateway (Governor’s Gate), which is the same artifact that will anchor the new park and interpretive centre. Through neglect and intent, the former HBC fort was allowed to simply fade into obscurity. By the fall of 1886, four of the largest structures still standing on the site were sold at auction by the HBC for $292. The former Government House netted a paltry $100 as firewood.
The delegates in 1912 proposed to “restore the walls, four bastions and four gateways, one upon each of the four sides, midway between the bastions; and the erection of a pavilion in the centre, within the fort, for a museum in which to collect all historical records of the country; prior to Confederation; and a portrait gallery for portraits of prominent men identified with the Hudson’s Bay regime. It will also permit the erection of monuments to the memory of the leading officers and others identified with that early period.”
When describing the $19.3-million project now underway, Jerry Gray, the chair of the Friends of Upper Fort Garry, 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 interpretive installations throughout the park. It is really adding a significant public park to the downtown landscape. And, of course, the original Governor’s Gate will remain.”
The 1912 delegation asked the HBC to either hand over the site to the province or city for free “so that it might be rebuilt and maintained as a memorial of the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the other citizens who laid the foundations of the great Canadian west.”
The HBC deputy governor promised to take the matter up in London, England, with the company’s board of governors headed by Lord Strathcona (Donald Smith, a former chief administrator of the Northern Department of the HBC based in Winnipeg, as well as a Manitoba MLA and MP).
It should be noted that in 1897, the HBC had already ceded the gate and the two lots it stood upon to the city “as a public park forever.” But the delegation was seeking to restore the old fort upon its original site and, if practical, the heritage park “erected upon a considerable potion of the old site and a piece of the adjoining property.” The illustration in the newspaper shows the heritage park occupying land bordered by the Assiniboine Avenue, Main Street and Fort Street. The north side of the proposed site would abut a new street called Simpson Avenue, which would have been named after former HBC Governor Sir George Simpson.
But Skinner also suggested that the attention of the delegation turn toward Lower Fort Garry and its land, which he thought could be handed over to the city. At the time, Ottawa was negotiating with the HBC to take over the site. In addition, the Winnipeg Automobile Club wanted the 10-acre site for its country headquarters. In the end, the Canadian government took over the site that is now under the jurisdiction of Parks Canada, but it did serve for a period as the country headquarters of auto club.
The delegation told Skinner that Lower Fort Garry was too far from the city. According to the article, Skinner said what the HBC really wanted was for “the spot to be kept as a relic of the past. He regretted the fact that it had been devastated so much already and would be only pleased to see it restored so that it might remain a fitting memorial to the early pioneer days.”
James H. Ashdown told the deputy governor that “the company could not do better than have the old fort grounds kept as a memorial to the Hudson’s Bay Company rule and the coming of the Lord Selkirk Settlers.”
Archbishop Samuel Pritchard Matheson, the president of the Selkirk Settler’s Association, who introduced the delegation to Skinner, said “he had spent his boyhood and a great portion of his manhood here (Fort Garry), and in the early days he had had a great deal to do with the late members of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They had always been fair in their dealings with the settlers and he thought nothing could be better than that old Fort Garry should be restored and kept to the memory of them and the other pioneers of the west ...”
When the delegation appeared before the HBC deputy governor, the association was celebrating the centenary of the arrival of the Lord Selkirk settlers at Red River. This year marks the 200th anniversary of their arrival, so a number of organizations, such as the Committee for the Bicentenary of the Red River Selkirk Settlement, are planning a number of events to commemorate the first coming of the settlers of 1812. Other settlers sponsored by Lord Selkirk would arrived at Red River in 1813, 1814 and 1815.
One person and group associated with the old fort was not mentioned; that is, Louis Riel and the Métis who took over the fort and used it as the administrative centre of the provisional government in 1869-70. It was also against the walls of the fort that Thomas Scott was executed for treason on March 4, 1870. Apparently, Riel was a controversial historical figure in 1912 — as remains the case today — despite his significant role in bringing Manitoba into the Canadian Confederation as a province.
The delegation said the old fort would be restored “in the interest of the past history of Rupert’s Land and ... have a desire to retain for the citizens of Winnipeg this landmark of its early foundation, the village at its inception having been known as Fort Garry.” The Friends of Upper Fort Garry also have made this one of their reasons for creating the heritage site.
What was first suggested so many years ago is finally becoming a reality.