Manitoba’s capital is a city experiencing a renaissance
By Lola Augustine Brown
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is an architecturally stunning building inside and out. Ride the elevators to the top and you’re treated to a panoramic view out over the city, and walking back down the ramps made of glowing alabaster lit from within is a visual treat. But when you tour the exhibits, your reaction is likely to be emotional. I wasn’t prepared for how intense my response would be, how much I would be made to feel—and think.
It was in the Holocaust Gallery that I began to experience a visceral response. I had thought I had a good understanding of the atrocities of that time, but the museum’s exhibits broke through the numb acceptance that I guess had developed over the years. I wanted to leave because the feelings were so intense, but I stayed and learned. My heart opened and I considered that in these tumultuous times, the lessons of the past are all the more important.
There are 10 core galleries in the museum, covering human-rights abuses but also the triumphs and key figures that have influenced widespread change. While the museum is at times depressing, it’s also uplifting and incredibly informative. Technology makes topics approachable and interactive, and there are areas for rest and contemplation so that you can ponder what you’ve seen.
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights opened in 2014, and though it’s probably the most noticeable sign of change in Winnipeg, the city itself has really evolved in the past five years and offers a lot for visitors to experience. The food scene is diverse and exciting, revitalized neighbourhoods in and around the downtown core offer fun shopping and browsing experiences, and the city is embracing its rock history—and other histories—in new ways. Over a four-day visit to the city, I fell in love with the place and left knowing that there was a lot I hadn’t seen.
Meet Me at the Forks
I arrived in Winnipeg hungry, having left Halifax at 5 a.m. I checked in to my lovely suite at the retro-inspired Inn at the Forks and took a short walk to The Forks Market in search of some lunch. The brick buildings of the market date back to 1850, when Winnipeg was a fur-trading post and provided stables for the railroad. In 1989, the city came up with a plan to transform the area into a tourist attraction, and the market was born.
Today it is a bright and airy space filled with food stands, boutiques, and stores, with a huge open central area where you can sit and enjoy the many offerings there. “Meet me at the Forks” was a tourism slogan that has become local vernacular, especially in more recent years as the market has attracted more trendy eateries, many of which began as food trucks but have since set up base there.
The problem I had at The Forks Market was not knowing what to choose. I could have eaten every meal there for a week and not have run out of options. I sampled a slice of pizza from Red Ember Common, where the ingredients are sourced locally as much as possible. The “Heroshima” sandwich from Kyu Grill is an intensely delicious medley of flavours involving skewer-grilled chicken, pork, beef, or tofu served on a sweet bun with Japanese sauces and toppings such as pickled carrot and ginger slaw. I had a little piece of fish from Fergies Fish’n Chips, the best in Manitoba I was told; it was fabulous. Ready to burst, I had to go back to the hotel for a little nap before I was ready to tackle anything else.
When I could move again, I decided to walk the 20 minutes or so over to Osborne Village. There I browsed boutiques full of too many things I wanted to buy, spent ages in a huge and very reasonably priced antique store, and whiled away the afternoon window-shopping before meeting a friend for dinner.
At the excellent Spanish restaurant Segovia, we shared plates of chorizo dumplings, jamón Ibérico (Iberian ham) and hazelnuts, mushrooms with egg yolk and truffle butter, the best olives I’d ever tasted, and for dessert, a churro with caramel crema. The meal was exceptional, and Segovia was an all-around perfect experience. I went to bed very satisfied, indeed.
Rock ’n’ Roll City
After a tasty breakfast at Smith, the excellent hotel restaurant that’s a popular brunch spot for locals, I met with my guide for the morning, Don Finkbeiner of Heartland International Travel and Tours. I wanted to learn about the rock history of Winnipeg, but it was too early in the season to join one of the “Magical Musical History” tours that the company runs, so Finkbeiner offered me a private tour that ended up not only showing me the stomping grounds of Randy Bachman, Burton Cummings, and Neil Young, but also the masonic history of Winnipeg. Finkbeiner loves his city and really knows his stuff.
Starting from my hotel, Finkbeiner took me through The Forks Market, explained how the city built up around the railway yard and was in 1870 the fastest growing city in North America. We drove to the francophone neighbourhood of St. Boniface to see the grave of Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba, at St. Boniface Cathedral. The cathedral is interesting because it was rebuilt in 1972 among the maintained ruins of the original 1862 cathedral. From there, we headed to the north end of the city, traditionally a poorer, immigrant neighbourhood. This is where the rock ’n’ roll tour began.
We started at the nondescript little house where Burton Cummings grew up with his mother and grandmother. Randy Bachman would come by after school and the two would write songs together.
Finkbeiner explained that because the legal drinking age in Manitoba in the ’60s was 21, there wasn’t much for young people to do except go to see bands play at the local community clubs. “Growing up here at that time, you either played hockey, curled, or joined a band,” Finkbeiner told me. “That’s what led to there being such a strong band scene here.”
We drove by the houses that Bachman and Cummings bought when they had become famous and the mansion that Bachman bought for his mom on the poshest street in Winnipeg. We saw Neil Young’s house, where he began writing music as a teen, and the hall where he played his first gig. Finkbeiner had a lot of stories to share about the music scene and threw in all kinds of other history in the time I spent with him.
Before I left his company, Finkbeiner took me for a tour of the beautiful Manitoba Legislative Building and explained the hidden hermetic coding in the architecture that paid homage to the mysticism and occultism of the Freemasons. The building is full of architectural clues that form a story about it—clues you’d never realize existed without expert guidance to find them. It was all very “Da Vinci Code.”
Everything Old Is New Again
My afternoon began in the Exchange District, a National Historic Site of Canada made up of 20 blocks of brick warehouses and historic buildings. If you removed the cars and fire hydrants, the area would look much as it did at the turn of the 20th century. Consequently, it has been a popular filming location for period pieces such as the Brad Pitt movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The area has been reborn as a trendy destination filled with Winnipeg’s hottest restaurants, independent boutiques, art galleries, artisanal stores, and cafés.
There are more than 300 murals in Winnipeg, and I loved seeing them adorning the walls throughout this historic district, below ancient faded building-wide painted ads for Coca-Cola and products that haven’t existed for decades. The contrast between old and new works well in the area, and edging the Exchange District are fine examples of the brutalist architecture of the ’60s. More modern buildings in the area have worked with the existing structures, paying respect to the past and helping the area keep its vintage feel.
The Exchange District is encompassed within the relatively new Design Quarter Winnipeg, and you can pick up a map that lists businesses that reflect the design aesthetic. Not surprisingly, the Exchange District is delightful for those who love to shop. I was tempted to splurge on a piece of art at one of the galleries and a designer dress by local artist Lennard Taylor at his design studio, but calmed down and bought some lovely silver earrings at the store of jewellery designer Hilary Druxman instead.
I stopped for lunch at the acclaimed local restaurant Deer + Almond, which is known for its chef doing whatever he wants and then creating food masterpieces. My duck confit bahn mi was excellent. Dessert was beet ice cream on a bed of feta with pickled Manitoba blueberries, mushrooms, and cocoa, which I know sounds odd but really worked.
Another fabulous new Winnipeg attraction to open in recent years is the city’s first Nordic spa, Thermëa, which is open year-round and offers sublime relaxation no matter how frigid the air temperatures are. I spent a wonderful afternoon there, starting with a eucalyptus-infused steam before rubbing myself down with crushed ice from a barrel and then taking a (super-quick) dip in the cold pool and then enjoying a lengthy wallow in the huge hot tubs. You’re supposed to repeat the process three times to reap maximum benefit, but I spent more time wallowing than anything, yet felt great. I ate a light dinner at the spa restaurant while still in my robe, then spent a little more time in the hot tubs before heading back to the hotel to sleep like a baby.
Walking the Peg
The first stop of day three was breakfast at the impeccable Clementine Café back in the Exchange District. I’d heard that you had to go early to get a table, so I got there as they opened and had the place to myself for 30 minutes before there was suddenly a lineup to get in. The coffee was excellent, and my meal of duck chilaquiles (shredded duck on tortilla chips with avocado crème, spicy sauce, and fried egg) was delicious. I was finished hours before every other attraction on my list was open, so I decided to walk to the riverfront and take pictures in the early morning light.
The Forks is so named because it’s where the Assiniboine and Red rivers meet. Visiting during the winter months when the rivers are frozen is pretty special. You see people skating along the rivers, curling and playing hockey on cleared rinks, and truly enjoying the spaces on the ice. My tour guide Don Finkbeiner had told me that you could skate the Red River all the way to Saskatchewan if you wanted to. Watching people glide along, all I could think of was the Joni Mitchell lyric about wishing for a river she could skate away on. I wandered through The Forks National Historic Site, reading plaques detailing some of the first settlers and the local First Nations, and admired the Esplanade Riel, a pedestrian-only bridge that is another fairly new architectural feature of the city. Winnipeg sparkled in the winter light; everything looked so pretty.
From there I walked up towards the Winnipeg Art Gallery, stopping in to check out Union Station/Winnipeg Railway Station, which was designed by the same architects who planned New York’s Grand Central Station and is a National Historic Site of Canada. I saw two young women exiting a bakery called Oh Doughnuts and asked if they recommended it. “Oh, yes, these are the best doughnuts in the city,” they told me, so I stopped for a coffee and a wonderful lemon meringue doughnut.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery has the largest public collection of Inuit art in the world and displays much of it beside its impressive collection of old masters, a juxtaposition that works in a way I’d not seen before. The temporary exhibits were soul-stirring collections of Indigenous art, and there was a fascinating graphic-art exhibit, too. The gallery is constructing a new wing, the Inuit Art Centre, and by the look of things, it promises to be an impressive space.
Dinner was at the dimly lit and romantic Peasant Cookery, where I felt a tad self-conscious to be dining alone, but didn’t care after my excellent meal arrived—steak on a bed of collard greens served with onion rings and a twice-baked potato. Another day ended with a superb meal. In terms of its culinary offerings, Winnipeg was knocking it out of the park.
How to End a Perfect Trip?
I woke up with a long list of things I still needed to see, do, and eat in Winnipeg.
Fuelled by a tasty eggs Benedict breakfast at the hotel, I jumped into a cab to Assiniboine Park Zoo to check out their hugely popular exhibit “Journey to Churchill,” which is home to rescued polar bears and other Artic animals in a large habitat that mimics their wild environment. The bears are rescued as part of efforts by the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, which flies in cubs that would die if left in the wild. There’s also a research station at the zoo. Visitors get to walk through glass tunnels and watch the bears swim above and around them: I can’t imagine there are too many other experiences where you’d ever get closer to a bear (and keep all your limbs). The bears are huge, fascinating, and beautiful.
From there, I took a taxi back to the Exchange District to eat, stopping at the area’s Miss Browns café for a tasty freshly made pork sausage sandwich. I meandered my way through the district (Winnipeg is in my experience a very walkable city, which my Fitbit appreciated) to the Manitoba Museum. I admired the very retro exhibits, such as the diorama of stampeding bison, and learned the history of the province as it grew from fur outpost to wheat centre, as well as how this meshed with the lives of the region’s Indigenous peoples.
And then it was time to leave. Winnipeg delighted me. I had enjoyed so much great food, learned a great deal, met plenty of friendly people, and developed a love for this Prairie city.
Photo: Tourism Winnipeg/William Au.