After a rather vocal public protest against its location at The Forks, city council decided against a $7-million subsidy for a waterpark, including an hotel, on a city-owned parking lot known as Parcel Four at the southwest corner of Waterfront Drive and William Stephenson Way. With the waterpark a no-go, there remains the question of what to do with the land that would best suit the site.
A quite valid suggestion was recently made by Robert Vineberg, a senior fellow at the Canada West Foundation (Free Press, May 29), to convert the parking lot into a park to honour the immigrants who in later decades followed the Selkirk Settlers. Indeed, the historical record shows that The Forks was the Manitoba equivalent of Ellis Island in New York and Pier 21 in Halifax. Ironically, and very similar sounding, there were plans in 1958 to turn Ellis Island into a $55-million resort, including a 600-room hotel, but the government declined the offer. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation making the island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, preventing any future plans of turning it into a swanky resort.
After arriving by steamboat from the United States at the Hudson’s Bay Company Landing, immigrants had their first glimpse of life in Winnipeg from the nearby Dominion Immigration Sheds, which were adjacent to the mouth of the Assiniboine River at its confluence with the Red River — The Forks.
Writing in his 1875 book, Winnipeg as It is in 1874; and as It was in 1860, George Babington Elliott said the sheds were comprised of “two separate ranges (buildings), capable of accommodating four or five hundred persons ... The immigrant generally makes this his home until he selects a location.”
Prior to the erection of the sheds, newcomers to Manitoba, especially overland immigrants, invariably first camped on a plain outside Upper Fort Garry and the fledgling hamlet of Winnipeg. The Liberal complained in a May 18, 1872, editorial that the Dominion (Canadian) government had been neglectful in its duty to provide shelter for immigrants arriving in Winnipeg. A year earlier, all the government had done was publish warnings in newspapers informing immigrants that the country was not ready to receive them, but “these parties kept pouring into the country.” Even with the influx of eastern settlers, Ottawa said there was “no necessity for an immigrant shed to protect them from the weather.”
The Liberal said federal officials did not move on building an immigrant shed “until disease set in compelling incomers to thrust themselves into stables, saw mills and out houses, for want of accommodation.”
The newspaper said when a large influx of immigrants arrived aboard the steamer Selkirk in the summer, “its cargo of sturdy yeoman, who were thrown upon the river bank, homeless and houseless, men, women and children of all ages, are left standing in the rains ...”
Due to the mounting local criticism, the federal government finally decided to act. Tenders were called for in April 1872 and by the summer, a “commodious immigration house” had been erected at The Forks. With more settlers arriving every day of the steamboat season, primarily from Eastern Canada, the population of Winnipeg doubled. The Manitoba Free Press reported in the fall of 1872 that in 1870 there had been 300 people living in Winnipeg, 700 in 1871, and “a careful enumeration” on November 1, 1872, showed a population of 1,467.
Surprisingly, the Manitoban complained the erection of the sheds did little to help immigrants, as the primary use of the buildings was for amateur concerts and theatricals staged by the Garrison Theatre Troupe from Winnipeg. But theatrical productions and concerts were only held in the winter until the arrival of spring, since the onset of cold weather stopped steamboat traffic from St. Paul and overland travel from Eastern Canada or the United States. It would be several years before the completion of the Pembina Branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) provided Winnipeg with a year-round rail connection with the outside world. And, it wasn’t until 1881-82 that the CPR reached Winnipeg from Eastern Canada.
The Manitoban also complained that little had been done to help prepare the Immigration Sheds for the accommodation of newcomers. “The kitchens have no stoves,” the newspaper reported on May 3, 1873, “and the chimneys as they are presently arranged are perfectly useless for cooking or anything else, unless something in the way of a useable fireplace is provided. The whole building is dirty, unswept, and unfit for human habitation. Who is responsible for such a state of things, and why is not something done at once to put the place into better order.”
Over the years of its existence, the sheds at The Forks continued to receive immigrants, despite the numerous complaints found in newspapers about the deteriorating conditions within the two buildings. From May 1 to October 1, 1874, a total of 2,693 immigrants were accommodated at the sheds, including 1,368 Mennonites. In the spring of 1878, immigrants began to flood into Winnipeg and the sheds quickly became overcrowded. As a result, militia tents were commandeered to house the overflow.
The inadequacy of the Dominion Immigration Sheds was emphasized with the arrival in May 1882 of 340 Russian Jewish refugees escaping pogroms in their home country. Newspapers wrote that the impoverished Jews were living under deplorable conditions in the ill-prepared
Dominion Immigration Sheds. The embarrassing condition of the federal facility resulted in the city building its own Immigration Hall on Higgins Avenue.
The 1884 annual report of the Department of Agriculture (then in charge of Western Canadian immigration), indicated 6,385 people had been housed in the sheds at The Forks during 1883, which was an increase of 435 people from the previous year.
Over the years, other buildings appeared in the city to house immigrants. A “palatial” Immigration Hall was built near the CPR depot on Fonseca (Higgins) in 1888. The CPR added a more substantial immigration building when it began building a new depot in 1903. In 1904, the federal government announced it would be building a Canada Immigration Hall on Maple Street north of Higgins.
The Dominion Immigration Sheds disappeared as railway facilities in the area expanded and became the Canadian National East Yards, which were redeveloped into The Forks Historic Site.
As an integral part of the early immigrant experience in Winnipeg, a park honouring their contribution to the settlement of Western Canada is a natural fit for The Forks, especially when the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights is also taken into consideration.