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“Philistine land-gambling”
Mar 27, 2008

Over 130 years ago, the Hudson’s Bay Company knew Upper Fort Garry was a lost cause. Their Winnipeg fort was not destined to become the centre of the embryonic city, as powerful forces were aligned against them — predominately politicians and business leaders originally from Ontario with no sense of the Company’s and the fort’s contribution to the history of the community.

By 1862 and the founding of Henry McKenny’s store at the corner of Portage and Main, the HBC knew it was fighting a losing battle. Winnipeggers had won their fight for incorporation in 1873 and all future attempts by the HBC to have federal government buildings located on its 500-acres of land surrounding the fort had been thwarted — this by the “indignation” expressed by Winnipeggers bent upon making their community the commercial centre of the newly-created city.

The triumph of Winnipeg was completed when the federal government announced it would be building a new post office, land office and customs house in central Winnipeg instead of on land it had earlier set aside in the HBC reserve at Fort Garry.

In the1860s, the HBC began to recognize the futility of its cause and allowed the historic fort to deteriorate through neglect.

“Fort Garry in Ruins,” announced a headline in the Manitoban, dated May 27, 1871. “Not exactly the entire Fort, reader, but a considerable portion of the stone wall fronting on the Red River. It has been threatening a tumble down for a long time, and lest it might fall into the Fort, some men were employed by the Company to throw it down so that it would fall outside. The bastions and a portion of the wall immediately adjoining them, still stand, but in decidedly bad condition. The side gate entrance to the Fort, fell among the ruins.”

Thirty-two years later, an English writer for the London Daily Bulletin toured the city and stumbled upon what remained of the historic landmark. He wrote: “Then you stroll out to this very everyday twentieth century place and follow the street a little further, till you observe something standing alone on your right — a tiny building of rough stone. It is not twelve feet high, and you have seen bigger and better buildings put up to stable two or three horses.”

The English writer was able to encapsulate the significance of what he saw and place the fort into an historical context, more so than local residents, who allowed the “tiny building” to diminish in importance through indifference.

“Yet the photos of it have met you at every corner of the town, and you stand and gaze at this old relic — this one bit of history in this world of newness — Fort Garry, the nucleus from which Manitoba’s metropolis roaring around you has sprung; Fort Garry, the old headquarters of the great Hudson’s Bay Company you have just left; Fort Garry, the destination and crown of Lord Wolseley’s famous three months’ march through the terrible forest, when, as Colonel Wolseley, he put down the Red River rebellion under Louis Riel in 1870.”

It was the English traveller who wistfully gazed upon what had been and commented:  “Modern commercialism and the Philistine allurements of land-gambling, have, alas! caused the pulling down of the greater  part of the old fort, so that all one sees is little beyond the gateway. Sentiment woke when it was too late, and now Winnipeg mourns forever the act of vandalism she permitted in her midst.”

Most of the rubble from the fort’s stone walls had by 1880 been used for building foundations to create the “modern commercialism” decried by the English writer. Showing its own attraction to to “the Philistine allurements of land-gambling,” the HBC by 1877 sold off most of its 500-acre reserve as lots around the fort to reap a $2-million profit.

By the fall of 1886, four of the largest structures still standing on the old fort site were sold at auction by HBC for just $292. The former Government House netted a paltry $100 as firewood.

It’s another act of historic vandalism that threatens what remains of the “tiny building.” The indifference so criticized by a travelling writer in 1903 is alive and well within city council, which voted 9-6 not to allow the Friends of Upper Fort Garry additional time to raise the funds needed to develop an interpretive centre and park around the Upper Fort Garry Gateway. The friends have only raised  $6.6 million of the required $10 million — the province and Ottawa each kicked in $1.5 million. The gateway is the only existing evidence that the fort had once been the focal point of the Red River Settlement founded by Lord Selkirk; the site of Louis Riel’s provisional government during 1869-70; as well as the site where the founding of a new province within Canada was first envisioned.

In rejecting the extension, the mayor said the city could not renege on an earlier deal with Crystal Developers to build an apartment complex behind the gateway on surplus city land. One has to feel sympathy for the developer who has been caught in the middle of an age-old fight over the former site of Upper Fort Garry. No one can blame the developer for making a bid on the land deemed vacant by the city. Until people began to realize that a corner of the land in question had contained a portion of the former fort did problems arise. When the developers became aware they would be dragged into the fight, they told the friends they would work closely with them to create an interpretive site.

The origin of the problem resides with the city which gave the developer the green light without regard to the historical importance of the fort. Following a public outcry, the reaction of the city was to feign sympathy by giving the friends until March 31 to raise funds to redevelop the site, although the time allotted severely limited their ability to raise the necessary $10 million. The time constraint created a herculean task that defies completion unless a last-minute saviour can be found. As now suggested by the premier, provincial park status for the site could turn the tide.

With a few exceptions, the city can be said to have succumbed to “the Philistine allurements of land-gambling.” In addition, “sentiment woke when it was too late, and now Winnipeg mourns forever the act of vandalism she permitted in her midst.”