Mostly, when I’ve heard people discuss Winnipeg, Manitoba, the conversation has revolved around the cold, windy weather and the overabundance of mosquitoes. So imagine my surprise when, on the fourth day of our Cross Canada RV trip, we arrived in a beautiful modern city with so much to see and experience.
My knowledge of Winnipeg had been limited to vaguely retained facts from my days as a student of history at UBC; I remembered the significance of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and that the city sat at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.
The Forks is a funky market situated at the confluence of the two rivers. To visit Winnipeg and miss out on The Forks is comparable to visiting Vancouver and skipping Granville Island.
My current interest in the city is tied to family. My ancestors are from the Red River and St. Boniface area. Dean and I planned to stay a few days as part of a family history expedition.
Historical records indicate my great grandfather’s family (Abraham Belanger) had two Red River allotments. I wanted to connect with my Metis roots. We started at Riel House National Historic Site.
Then we went to Saint Boniface Cathedral, the resting place of Louis Riel and other influential Metis and French people from the mid to late 1800s. Many of the older headstones are too worn to read the details of who is buried there, but I recognized some names from my previous research. We wandered around Saint Boniface, admiring the stone and brick buildings, many dating back hundreds of years.
Another stunning piece of old architecture is The Legislative Building which was opened in 1920. The building is full of symbols and hidden meanings. You can go on your own or book a guided tour.
If you can't visit the Manitoba Legislative Building in person, you can take a virtual tour here.
Winnipeg, for all its historical significance is a beautiful, modern city – and its true gem is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Another architectural wonder, it is what’s inside that will leave you in awe. A week ago I had not heard of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Now I may not be able to stop talking about it. It is not a museum full of artifacts, but a museum full of stories and concepts; a world class, high-tech space, making use of interactive, multimedia and digital arts to create displays like none I’ve ever seen before. If you are a person with any kind of social conscience – and perhaps, more importantly if you are not – this museum is a must see. It is definitely not your typical museum.
One display that immediately draws visitors in consists of a haunting image of red dresses hanging in the forest.
It is part of the Red Dress Project – a visual reminder of the more than 1000 missing and murdered indigenous women, started by Winnipeg based Metis artist, Jaime Black. In one brochure, I found this simple, but precise explanation of the display.
“Red dresses hang in front of a woodland background. Blood-red dresses. Empty red dresses – where living and breathing women should be.”
Fashion sometimes has a reputation for being snobbish and shallow. But in fact, fashion often makes a social statement. Consider the tens of thousands of women who marched after Trump’s inauguration, donning Pink Pussy Hats. They were sending a message by what they were wearing.
It is not possible to truly appreciate all there is to see at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in a single day. I hope to stop again on our way back to BC because I missed so much.
The stories are told from a Canadian perspective. A family who escaped genocide in Rwanda, or a Holocaust survivor now living in Canada tell their stories through video and audio recordings. These are emotional experiences for sure, but as serious as the subject matter is, there is somehow hope and optimism in these stories.
In fact, I saw an ad that read, “How do you put human rights in a museum? Come see.”
I’m so glad we did.