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Upper Fort Garry - A Mosaic of Manitoba

Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park (southwest corner of Broadway and Main) is built on the site of the original Upper Fort Garry and is the birthplace of Manitoba. It is recognized as a federal, provincial, and municipal heritage site based on the importance of the fort itself to Canadian history, as well as the numerous historical events that happened there. The story of Upper Fort Garry is very much a story of the fur trade, of early Canadian immigration, of Indigenous peoples, of the formation of our country and of the beginning of our province and city.

The year is 1806. France is ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, and George III is King of England. Noah Webster has just published the very first dictionary of American English, composer Joseph Haydn died, and Canada didn't really exist - at least, not like we know it. there is an Anglophone British Upper Canada, and a Francophone Lower Canada. The land that would eventually become Manitoba was still part of the vast Rupert's Land, and two warring companies fought over the luxurious furs that sold so well back home in Europe. Key to the success of the fur trade was the knowledge of Indigenous peoples, who could aid or discourage a company based on how they were treated in return.

Illustration of Fort Garry from the river.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and files

The Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was the largely English fur trading conglomerate that had dominated the fur trade in Canada for more than one hundred years, since they received a charter in 1670. However, the North-West Company, founded 1779, had exploded in size and quickly rose to challenge the HBC's monopoly. The HBC post in Winnipeg was built in the Point Douglas area, while in 1806 the North-West Company built their fort, Fort Gibraltar, further south along the river. The rivalry between the two companies rose to a fervor on June 19, 1816 at the Battle of Seven Oaks. A group of Metis men led by Cuthbert Grant encountered the unfortunate HBC governor Robert Semple and his men. A decisive victory for the Metis and the North-West Company, all the HBC men were killed, including Semple - and only one casualty for Grant and his party. Later that year Fort Gibraltar was destroyed. Soon after, in 1821, the two companies were amalgamated.

Upper Fort Garry, c. 1848
Source: Library and Archives Canada

The following year, in 1822, Fort Garry was built on the other side of what would become Main Street. Originally wooden, the walls were rebuilt with stone in 1835. In 1850, the booming fur trade prompted expansion of the fort to the north, and the surviving gateway was built in 1853. In the time between the original Fort Gibraltar and the construction of the existing gate, George III had died, and so had two of his elder sons, in quick succession - therefore his great-niece Victoria had ascended to the British Throne. Queen Victoria was the "Great Mother" referred to in the terms of Treaty One, signed in 1871 - albeit at Lower Fort Garry, further down the river running north to Hudson's Bay. At this point, Fort Garry was a centre of the settlement at Red River: the centre of decision-making, the centre of trade, the centre of law, and a social centre as well. Groups from the close-by but distinct settlements came together: First Nations communities, including Cree, Ojibwe, Dakota, and Assiniboin peoples; the large Metis settlement; Scots settlers from Kildonan; along with retired and current HBC and NWC employees. It would retain its central importance until the 1880s when development resulted in the building of the first City Hall, the current Government House, and others.

Illustration of Winnipeg in 1869
Source: Provincial Archives

The Hudson's Bay Company might have been satisfied after consuming the North-West Company that their opposition in Winnipeg was quiet. They would have been wrong - in 1869, Louis Riel and his men captured the Fort and used it as the base for their Provisional Government, negotiating the creation of the province of Manitoba with then-Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. The fort, as the centre of judicial power for the Red River Settlement, was a strategic target. After taking the fort, Riel and his government were able to successfully negotiate terms for Manitoba's entry, although Riel himself would come to a tragic end fifteen years later in Batoche, still fighting for fair treatment of the Metis people.

In 1882, in the same year that the Canadian Pacific Railway was extended to Winnipeg, Upper Fort Garry was sold and the walls were demolished, taking from 1881 - 1888. A few different explanations exist for why the walls were destroyed, including repurposing of materials for other building sites and using the land to straighten Main Street. Thanks to the efforts of the Manitoba Historical Society, a park was built on the site (moved by city council to exist in perpetuity) and was presented to the City of Winnipeg in 1897 by the Hudson's Bay Company. The land existed as a park for decades, before interest in the city's history began to peak in the late 1970's along with the heritage movement.

Map of Winnipeg, 1881. Upper Fort Garry highlighted in yellow.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre & Files

In 1978, the first archaeological excavation was carried out on the site of Upper Fort Garry, and excavations continued into the 1980's and 1990's. Although excavations further cemented the historic nature of the site, the land was rising in value due to its strategic downtown location (in an interesting case of irony, since the location of the fort determined construction of the downtown). Heritage Winnipeg was determined to save the site of the Upper Fort Garry, not just the gateway, and commissioned a feasibility study in 2004.  In 2008, the Friends of Upper Fort Garry raised $10 million dollars in just 107 days to prove to the city they could build their heritage park and save the site from development for generations to come. The city donated the land and work began right away.  It was officially unveiled as a provincial park on October 18th, 2014. The original fort gate from 1853 had previously been designated as a federal heritage site on June 4th, 1924, and a municipal heritage site on June 13th, 1991.

Upper Fort Garry gate, 1904.
Source: Library and Archives Canada

More recently, efforts continue to make the history of Upper Fort Garry more accessible to everyone. In 2014, a free app was released by Pattern Interactive, to help explain and explore the various parts of the reconstructed fort plan and their stories. As of this year, a new element was added to allow visitors to interact with the Heritage Wall. Also this year, CanTalk released the free app CanNect for Upper Fort Garry, to allow more people to access the history in eleven different languages, including French, Cree, Ojibwe, Tagalog, and Ukrainian. With the addition of the Heritage Wall, Phase 2 of the heritage park at Upper Fort Garry is complete: the first phase was the park redevelopment and Phase 3 is the Visitor's Centre.

1976 diagram of the original Upper Fort Garry and the modern Main St.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files
Coming up this weekend is Canada Historic Places Day, on July 7th. Much lesser-known than the jubilant Canada Day the previous weekend, Historic Places Day is no less important. Understanding the stories of our historic places help us understand why Canada is the way it is today, and to find solutions and inspiration from problems that were dealt with in the past. Understanding Upper Fort Garry can help us understand Winnipeg as a city, and Manitoba as a province, and ultimately lead us to try and fulfill the vision of their position in Canada as a truly multicultural society.

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg


Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files

Upper Fort Garry

MHS: Upper Fort Garry

Battle of Seven Oaks


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