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Heritage river
Jun 23, 2006

Aboriginal people used it for thousands of years as a major waterway into the heart of the continent, along its shore agriculture in Manitoba was first practiced, the first European settlement in Manitoba was named after it, and a city arose along its banks.

The Red River has been nominated for membership in the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. If the nomination succeeds, the Red will be the first Prairie river in the CHRS. because of its unique history and importance to so many, its a  designation that should be impossible to argue against.

“This historic river has played an important role in the development of our nation,” said Rona Ambrose, federal Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, when announcing the nomination. “With its rich assemblages of artifacts representing 6,000 years of aboriginal history, including the earliest example of aboriginal agriculture on the prairies, and its ties to the earliest European explorers to reach this part of Canada, the Red River and its history form a unique and valuable part of our rich Canadian heritage.”

Excavations at The Forks National Site show  that aboriginals had been visiting the area for thousands of years. For aboriginals, it was both a stopping place and a meeting place where trade items could be exchanged and food procured.

Further north at Lockport on the east side of the Red, agriculture came for the first time to Manitoba, well before the arrival of Europeans. Excavations at Lockport show a period of corn production starting around AD1200 that only ended when a cold snap arrived in AD1500.

The tradition of aboriginal agriculture was resurrected further to the north near present-day Selkirk when the Ojibway  established the community of St. Peter’s (called the Indian Village) on the Red River.

Manitoba’s first Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald described St. Peter’s as a place with “many well-built houses and many fields well-tilled ...”

Archibald also took part in the negotiations for the first treaty to be signed on August 2, 1871 between the Canadian government and native leaders at the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry) on the west side of the Red River.

It was along the Red, starting in 1812, that the Selkirk Settlers set up the first European colony in Manitoba, which came to be known as the Red River Settlement.

The importance of the Red to the fur trade intensified to the point that the Battle of Seven Oaks was fought between the Hudson’s Bay Company-sponsored settlers and the Metis of the North West Company. The brief and one-sided battle resulted in the deaths of Red River Settlement Governor Robert Semple and 20 settlers as well as one Metis fighting for the Nor’Westers.

Two forts had been established on the west side of the Red River in close proximity to each other the Nor’Westers’ Fort Gibraltar at The Forks and Fort Douglas just a few kilometres to the north. Fort Gibraltar was ordered burned and destroyed by Semple in 1816 just prior to the battle and Fort Douglas was occupied by the Metis under Cuthbert Grant following the battle. The open conflict was only resolved in 1821 when the two sides merged under the banner of the HBC.

The only other conflict occurred when Louis Riel and the Metis 1869-70 became the authority of the Red River Settlement in 1869-70. The so-called red River rebellion ended when Col. Garnet Wolseley, leading British regulars and Canadian militia, came down the Red to occupy Lower Fort Garry. Riel had that morning fled the fort and crossed over the Red to St. Boniface. His first stop prior to years of exile was at St. Boniface Cathedral, the first 

Roman Catholic cathedral in the West. 

St. Boniface, along the east side of the Red, should also be noted as being the first major French-speaking community outside of Quebec.

By 1873, the infant community of Winnipeg along the Red was incorporated as a city. Immigrants to the then three-year-old province of Manitoba were channeled through this new city to settle in the West. The first stay for  newcomers was Immigration Hall, located on the Red River side of The Forks. In 1874, Mennonites would have passed through its doors en route to settlements in southern Manitoba, in 1875 Icelanders’ first glimpse of Winnipeg was Immigration Hall before proceeding down the Red into Lake Winnipeg to found the new community of Gimli.

After the Canadian Pacific Railway came in 1881, immigrants from other farflung countries, arriving by train in the tens of thousands, were welcomed by the sight of Winnipeg as they crossed the Red.

The Red has not always been benevolent to those who have chosen to call its banks home. Major innudations have periodically occurred, including the disastrous floods of 1826, 1854, 1950 and most recently in 1997 when the Red River Valley community of Ste. Agathe was overcome by the Red’s fury.

But despite its sometimes angry disposition, the Red has proven time and again that it can also be counted upon as a corridor of wealth and prosperity. Over the years, its fertile plain has provided a livelihood to enterprising farmers and thriving communities have grown up along its banks to provide services for these agriculturists. 

The nomination of the Red River was spearheaded by Rivers West with the co-operation of Manitoba Conservation, Manitoba Water Stewardship, and Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism. It includes the 175-kilometre reach from the United States border to Lake Winnipeg.

“Few rivers are so steeped in history or have had such a profound influence on a region as the Red,” said Manitoba’s Minister of Conservation Stan Struthers. 

Struthers presented Rivers West chairman, Jim August, with a cheque for $15,000 to support its work on preparing a CHRS designation document for the Red.

The Bloodvein, Hayes and Seal rivers have already been designated heritage rivers in Manitoba. Why the Red has not yet been made a heritage river — it actually should have been the first local river to receive this designation given its importance for thousands of years to so many people — is an oversight that must be quickly corrected.