TOP OF THE WHISTLE-STOPS
Winnipeg is a fascinating destination in its own right
It was supposed to be a stopover, little more than a place to recharge after the long journey to Canada before flying north to the polar bear capital of Churchill, but as I looked out of my hotel room window all thoughts of getting a jump on jet lag were replaced by an itch to go out and explore.
From my vantage point in The Fort Garry Hotel, one of Canada’s historic railway hotels, I could see the domed Beaux-Arts style Union Station, Winnipeg’s take on Grand Central station in New York, and the stunning new architecture of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and felt the city’s special mix of old and new calling.
The capital of Manitoba, Winnipeg’s history didn’t quite unfold the way it was expected to100 or so years ago.
In 1912 Winnipeg was the fastest growing city on the continent, most of its population was aged under 40 and it was such a hot spot for millionaires that Chicago called itself the “Winnipeg of the South”. But the city’s fortunes started to go off the rails with the Winnipeg General Strike in 1919 and by the time it started to recover around the start of WWII, its momentum had been lost.
Located in the centre of North America, Winnipeg has long been a whistle-stop for travellers passing through by road or by rail, but in recent years the city has become a destination in itself. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in major projects, including the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), the newly expanded convention centre, and True North Square, the $400 million mixed-use downtown development that is due for completion in 2020.
A National Historic Site, the Exchange District is home to North America’s largest collection of wellpreserved heritage buildings, with more than 30 blocks of turn-of-thecentury terracotta and stone-cut architecture. Not only are these streets beautiful to walk along, they are also where you’ll find great cafes, shops and art galleries.
After a breakfast of mixed grain porridge with coconut, pineapple butter, berries and cashews, followed by a decadent maple whiskey cappuccino at Clementine’s, we wander the Exchange District streets, popping into stores along the way.
At the junction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers, The Forks is another top spot for exploring shops, bars and markets. The Common craft beer and wine kiosk in the renovated Forks Market offers a chance to taste up to 20 local beers and wines that change with the seasons, with flights of sample-size glasses on wooden paddles a popular way to try them all.
While Winnipeg’s free Downtown Spirit shuttle buses run between the Exchange and the Forks, if the weather is on your side, the 20-minute walk between the two is easily done.
But no matter the weather, a stop at the CMHR is a must.
The only museum in the world dedicated to the concept of human rights opened in 2014 in a 24,000sq m building that has been compared to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. While Frank Gehry may be one of the first influences that springs to mind, there are so many unusual elements to the building that the museum offers separate architecture tours as well as special Mikana-Keya Spirit Tours that share the indigenous perspective on both the space and the content within.
During our 90-minute Explore the Galleries Tour, guide Julie White shared her own perspective on what it means to be Metis and to have a background that is both indigenous and European, as well as explaining the powerful stories behind some of the museum exhibitions as we moved through seven floors of gallery space.
Rather than being built around a collection of artefacts, the museum is built around the idea of human rights, and takes advantage of technology including virtual reality and augmented reality to tell stories that illuminate the idea.
Museum visits start in the base of the building, where no natural light shines through, and work their way up into the light. Even without pausing to look at the exhibitions it would take around 30 minutes to walk from the main entrance through the different galleries to the Tower of Hope’s observation deck.
As we admire the glowing ramps of Spanish alabaster, Julie explains the material was chosen because of its healing properties. There is also a ceremonial terrace with sacred indigenous plants where visitors can take part in smudging ceremonies, and a soothing Garden of Contemplation filled with basalt and pools of water that was inspired by Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway.
The museum’s concept flows through to its cafe and gift shop. ERA Bistro was named Good Food Manitoba’s 2017 Restaurant of the Year for its creative use of local ingredients, while the CMHR’s boutique is dedicated to ethically sourced and sustainable products.
And while the CMHR may be Winnipeg’s latest architectural wonder, there is another building with a more mysterious story to tell.
At first glance, the Manitoba Legislative Building may look like the sort of neoclassical building that can be found in cities around the world but when you join one of Frank Albo’s Hermetic Code Tours, it reveals itself to be something else entirely.
“By the time you leave here you will be more intelligent, better balanced, and altogether more civilised. Those aren’t my words, those are the architect’s words.”
Despite having said the same line to around 30,000 people since he started doing his tour in 2009, Frank positively beams as he leads us around the building, explaining how his simple question about why there would be a sphinx on the roof of a legislative building in Canada led him down a fascinating rabbit hole filled with symbolism and sacred geometry.
After years of decoding the signs in the building, including a stint where he became a Freemason so he could understand more of what he was uncovering, Frank is confident the building is a temple in disguise where “everything is hidden in plain view”.
By the time Frank has taken us through the building it’s fair to say my mind has been blown. And I know this is one stopover I’ll be sharing stories about for years.
ASSINIBOINE PARK Winnipeg’s old and new ... Pavilion Gallery Museum is the centrepiece of Assiniboine Park; sample local beers and wines at The Forks Market; CMHR’s architecture is stunning.
THE FORKS MARKET
CANADIAN MUSEUM FOR HUMAN RIGHTS