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.



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