The inductee for the 10th anniversary of the WinnipegREALTORS®-established Citizens Hall of Fame was Bill Norrie, the former Winnipeg mayor who passed away at age 83 on July 11.
“I heartily endorse the induction of a born and raised Winnipegger who has done so much to make us proud of the city we call home,” said hall of fame chair Bill Burns when Norrie was inducted in June 1995. With his induction into the hall of fame, Norrie’s sculpture is among those now on display on pedestals in the Formal Garden at Assiniboine Park. The sculptures serve as reminders to Winnipeggers of those who have made outstanding contributions to the quality of life in their community.
Norrie was so thrilled by his induction that he, along with his wife Helen, continued to support the hall of fame and regularly attended the annual induction ceremonies.
In fact, Norrie’s history with the hall of fame precedes his induction. He had urged Burns to carry through with the inauguration of a hall of fame honouring outstanding Winnipeggers when it was first proposed in 1986. With his support, the first home of the sculptures was adjacent to the mayor’s office at city hall. As the numbers of sculptures increased, other locations were tried until a permanent home for the busts was finally found at Assiniboine Park.
Norrie’s support for the hall of fame is just one example of his dedication to honouring Winnipeg and its residents.
Premier Greg Selinger, who served on city council with Norrie, at the time of the former mayor’s passing, said, “I’ll always remember the way he fully embraced the growing diversity of our city through his tireless efforts to connect Winnipeggers of all cultural backgrounds.”
Indeed, Norrie was an advocate for the creation of Chinatown in the city, and was recognized with the Philippine-Canada Friendship Medal, the Taras Shevchenko Medal of the Ukrainian-Canadian Committee, and received the B’Nai Brith Canadian Human Rights Award for the preservation of human rights. (His awards and accomplishments are too numerous to fully list here.)
“I also remember him as an early champion of downtown revitalization efforts,” added Selinger.
Among the programs that came to fruition during his long tenure from 1979 to 1992 as mayor, was the Core Area Initiative, which involved funding for the Canadian, provincial and civic governments, from which arose the North Portage Development Corporation and The Forks Renewal Corporation Agreement. It was through his promotion that The Forks has become one of the jewels in the crown of Winnipeg and Manitoba. Norrie had his own vision for The Forks. He didn’t want The Forks to be totally built up, but wanted a portion left as green space.
Under Norrie’s watch, the downtown became a priority and private- and public-sector investment rose accordingly, including new construction projects such as Investors’ Group, the TD Centre, 400 St. Mary’s, the new Union Centre, a refurbished Hotel Fort Garry, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet Building and, of course, new buildings in Chinatown.
Urban planners today know that the problems in the downtown had begun to manifest themselves with increased crime and urban decay during the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, Norrie began the downtown renewal process that continues to this day. The solutions he proposed had mixed results, but he was the first mayor in decades to propose serious solutions to a very serious problem.
William Neville, in a July 16, 1992, Free Press column, summed Norrie up as a man who was “extremely good at the public relations aspect of the job. He is friendly, gregarious; he puts people at their ease. He is slow to anger, seems unperturbed by personal criticism and, with few notable exceptions, is not given to holding grudges.”
Neville, who served on city council during the Norrie years, said the mayor brought “civility and a sense of calm to public debates ...”
Norrie, who was a Rhodes Scholar and lawyer first elected to city council in 1971, became mayor of Winnipeg in 1979 in what was then described as a landslide victory against 11 other candidates. He claimed 101,299 votes which was 76,649 more than his closest rival, Councillor Joe Zuken.
Within council, he became noted as a crafty deal-maker, able to unite right- and left-leaning councillors. It also helped that it was during Norrie’s years while mayor that the provincial government cut the number of councillors to 29 and made the mayor’s position more powerful.
When Lawrie Cherniack, the chair of a provincially-appointed committee to review the city’s system of government, proposed having the mayor elected solely by council, Norrie raised his objection. “There is no question in my mind that the vast majority of people want to choose the mayor directly,” said Norrie at the time, “and they don’t want to let it be done in the back rooms of city hall.”
Since he easily won elections in 1979, 1983, 1986 and 1989, Norrie knew that his power came from the people, an understanding he inherited from Steve Juba, who also faced a similar proposal when Unicity was being introduced in Winnipeg in 1972.
Not everything was rosy, as Winnipeg was in the midst of an economic decline and people began to object to the high property taxes levied by city hall. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, city government — similar to all governments in Canada — was heavily in debt and it was reasoned the only way to dig Winnipeg out of the hole was by raising taxes. It was not a popular method, and later candidates running for mayor were forced to run on a platform of tax freezes or else face the wrath of the electorate.
Ironically, just days before Norrie’s death, I was discussing his health with WREN Twisty Tongue columnist Kathleen Teillet, who lives across the street from the Norries. She informed me of the health issues he was facing.
Although I had only occasionally talked to Norrie while he was mayor and then after he stepped down, I remembered his willingness to discuss virtually any topic and the sincere smile he always wore across his face during these discussions, so the news of his faltering health was extremely upsetting and the later news of his passing even sadder.
Our city has lost a kind and decent man who was completely dedicated to the welfare of this community.