Skip to main content

6000 Years in 60 Minutes, A Walking Tour at the Forks

Article by Rushika Khatkar & Laura McKay, on behalf  Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

Thank you to our guide for the wonderful tour of the Forks!
The Forks is a Winnipeg icon, a must see for any and all visitors. It is also a place many Winnipeggers like to frequent, with attractions such as the Forks Market, Sugar Mountain, an outdoor observatory (above), and the Children's Museum. However, despite its popularity, there are many things that people do not know about the Forks. The 6000 Years in 60 Minutes tour, given by Parks Canada, explains the history and stories of this Winnipeg icon.

We met at Travel Manitoba, which is currently located in the Forks Market. From there, we walked over to our first stop, Johnson Terminal. Our guide explained what the Forks used to look like. For example, the Forks Market was once used by the railway as a stable for horses. She also showed us pictures of a fossilized human footprint that was found in the area and is now on display in the CMHR. What was remarkable about this footprint was that it was found near a bison footprint, indicating that humans and bison were in the area at the same time, perhaps as hunter and prey.

The Forks Market that used to be stables
We then continued on our tour to the Forks Market Plaza, where we talked about some of the floods that have affected Winnipeg. On the poles for the pavilion, there are lines that mark the water levels that were reached in each of the floods. On the pole, there is a blue line that shows where the water level would have been in 2009 if the Red River Floodway, also known as Duff's Ditch, had not been built.

The next stop on the tour was the Prairie Garden. Only 1% of the prairie - in the sense of land covered in native plants - still exists today. These plants were used for a variety of purposes by the First Nations peoples and the settlers that followed them. Sage and sweet grass were burned for medicinal purposes, while Bergamot was used to make tea.

The tour guide told us about the importance of bison to the ecosystem and the First Nations peoples who were a part of it. As bison are grazers, they were natural gardeners for the prairies, trimming plants as well as turning up the soil as they walked over it, and providing "fertilizer". Every part of the bison was used by the First Nations peoples and the meat was also important to the voyageurs, who consumed two pounds of pemmican (dried meat, fat, and sometimes berries) every day on their trips north for the fur trade.

We walked over to Oodena Celebration Circle where we were were told more about the importance of bison. We were shown different ways parts of the bison might be used. We were able to hold a scraper made of bone, as well as a game for children from the skin. We also learned a bit about the Oodena itself. Today, it is used to help people see constellations and used as a gathering place for events like pow-wows - there's a giant fire pit in the centre. Once covered in railway junk, excavation of the area showed how long the place had been used for gatherings, with campfire rings found at every level.

A scraper made from the bone of a bison.
Children's game made of skin and bone from a bison.

As we continued on the tour, we were told about the fur trade. The fur trade in Canada was based on the fashionable top hat in Europe. They were so popular, almost every man had one, which of course created a huge demand for the beaver skins out of which they were made. Each hat took 2-3 beaver pelts to make.

The two main companies in the fur trade were the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Company.  The two companies had two rather different outlooks on their relationship with fur traders (primarily Metis and First Nations peoples) and in how they treated them.

The Northwest Company had a good relationship with the First Nations and felt comfortable doing things such as trading ammunition for pelts and providing goods in return for pelts later in the season. The Hudson's Bay Company did not agree with either of these ideas, among others, and the two companies came to be at odds with one another, often resulting in violent conflict between members. The fur trade eventually died out, with the replacement of silk hats for beaver ones in European fashion.

While looking over the river to Saint Boniface, we were told a little about the Metis lifestyle and the reason they later came into conflict with the British.  Land ownership was different for the Metis, who much like the French, preferred to divide their land into long narrow strips, providing each owner with access to the river at one end of their property. However, when the British arrived in the area, they surveyed the land into squares, with only some of the properties touching the river. This was one of many reasons for the Red River Rebellion, which culminated in the execution of its leader, Louis Riel. 

Finally we concluded the tour at the Path of Time sculpture. The sculpture showcases the different tools humanity has used and continues to use, highlighted when the sunlight shines through. Symbolizing people's influence over time on the land, some examples of the tools are a hammer and a WiFi symbol, representing both the old and the new, much like the Forks itself.

Rushika: This tour was a great way to end my internship. Working at Heritage Winnipeg has been an amazing experience. I return to my final year of high school this year. I am sad to leave the office but this is a job I will not forget. Thank you to the Winnipeg Foundation for giving me this opportunity and a HUGE thank you to Cindy and Laura who have helped this summer. They have made it a fantastic summer and I am glad to have been able to meet and work with them.