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Local history’s importance
Oct 23, 2009

Judging from the response to Heritage Highlights articles in our publication, Manitobans do care about their history. It is not uncommon to have someone call to provide additional information, an anecdote or relate family lore that centres around an historical article that has appeared in the WREN.

Former Manitoba Premier Gary Doer is a fan of the Heritage Highlights section as was former Mayor Glen Murray, who now resides in Toronto. On many occasions, Doer, the new Canadian ambassador to the United States, before I could ask questions about happenings on the political scene, would comment on the most recent Heritage Highlights article he had read. 

Other people specifically named in an article, however briefly, such as former Manitoba premier and Canadian governor general, Edward Schreyer, have called to give their own perspective on historical events. At one point, Schreyer wanted to clarify the reasons behind his government’s decisions when developing Hecla Island as a provincial park after an article on the history of the island appeared in our newspaper. 

Another NDPer, Bill Blaikie, a long-serving Transcona MP and now the MLA for Elmwood, called to comment on an article about the historical evolution of Canada’s health-care system. Blaikie noted that he was part of the NDP push to have the principles of comprehensive universal health care enshrined in the Canada Health Act of 1984 by the Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau Liberal government.

Actually, politicians of every political stripe have called to comment on Heritage Highlights articles.

School teachers have come to the WREN office on Portage Avenue to copy Heritage Highlights articles so that they can be used in their classrooms. School children and university students have called or e-mailed requesting to use articles in their research. 

Other people have e-mailed or phoned because they heard about a Heritage Highlights article of interest to them and wanted to know how to obtain a copy (archived articles are available at our website www.winnipegrealestatenews.com by clicking on Resources and then scrolling down to Heritage Highlights).

More than anything, the Heritage Highlights articles are designed to entertain while informing — providing another source of historical information about people and events in Manitoba’s history.

Since the WREN regards the dissemination of historical information to a wider audience as extremely important, it is gratifying to know that yet another effort has been made in this direction. 

The H. Sandford Riley Centre for Canadian History recently opened at the University of Winnipeg. The centre is named for local Winnipeg businessman Sandy Riley. A numbers cruncher by day, he told the media during the centre’s opening that he spends his evenings reading history books.

“I want to encourage people to write and teach and talk about history,” he told Free Press reporter Bill Redekop. “We don’t do enough to explain our history.”

There are a number of other valuable sources of local historical information readily available, including websites operated by Heritage Winnipeg, the Manitoba Historical Society, and the University of Manitoba, among many others. 

Another source of historical information is the Provincial Archives, which includes the Hudson’s Bay Company Collection. There are also locally-based historical societies, such as in Fort Rouge and St. Vital, as well as historical accounts of towns and villages across the province published by local historical societies. 

Not to be forgotten as another valuable source of historical information are the numerous museums across Manitoba; nor the historical record that the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights at The Forks will bring to the forefront when it is completed.

The WREN is not alone among newspapers in supplying historical articles for public consumption. Bob Holliday writes a weekly column on past Manitoba crime stories in the Sun, while the Free Press has an archive of old newspapers of historical interest available on the Web. 

The Beaver is a locally-based history magazine, formerly published by the Hudson’s Bay Company, but now run by the Canada’s National Historical Society. In fact, the society is now under the roof of the new H. Sandford Riley centre for Canadian History at Bryce Hall in the University of Winnipeg, as are the Oral History Centre, the Centre for Rupert’s Land Studies, the Plett Foundation, German Canadian Studies and Mennonite Studies.

Riley, who had been chancellor of the University of Winnipeg for nine years, said he wanted the university to become a serious centre of Canadian history. To realize this goal, he made a generous contribution to the founding of the centre.

Besides housing a number of historical organizations and societies, the university will now have a fellowship, thanks to Riley, in order to attract renowned historians as well as famous speakers.

The existence of the centre will re-establish the university as a major contributor to historical knowledge. In the past, the University of Winnipeg has had among its students and staff such history luminaries as W.L. Morton and Jack Pickersgill. It was Morton who proved the existence of two historical Louis Riels — the founder of the province of Manitoba and the rebel. For years, Riel’s role in founding the province had been buried as an inconvenient truth by the powers-that-be then ruling the province, who muddied the historical record by promoting Riel only as a rebel who deserved to be hanged for murder and mayhem for his leadership in the events of 1869-70 and 1885. Actually, those responsible for murder and mayhem in the early days of Manitoba were the people — primarily from Ontario — who eventually took over control of the province.

The more sources of historical information available to Manitobans, the better.  As Nellie McClung, a famous Manitoba historical figure and writer, said, “People must know the past, to understand the present, and to face the future.”