Catastrophic Flooding: Manitoba’s Perennial Challenge

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Photo: library and Archives Canada
Photo: library and Archives Canada

by Shannon Stunden Bower. Southern Manitoba has flooded. Again. Given the large number of notable floods that have occurred in the past few years, this must be a surprise to precisely no one, environmental historian or otherwise. Traversed by both the Red and the Assiniboiwinnipegfloodmap5

During the 1997 Red River flood, controversy arose over what was understood as then-premier Gary Filmon’s comment that people who choose to live in floodplains must bear some financial responsibility for flood damages. [7] Over a decade later, journalists were still referencing these comments. [8] A sympathetic listener might hear in Filmon’s assertion something akin to the environmental historian’s understanding of flooding as people in the way, as opposed to water out of place. But environmental historians are charged with explaining the collective decisions and social processes that, in addition to individual choices, put lives and livelihoods at risk. People live in Winnipeg in part because the railway runs through it. And with a state penal institution now occupying a former flood refuge, the impetus to develop contemporary means of managing flood risk is surely a community as well as an individual responsibility.

Flooding is Manitoba’s perennial challenge. It is a challenge that is as much human as environmental. It forces us to think hard about what sort of society we want to be, in terms of our relationship to our neighbours as much as our relationship to nonhuman nature. And it offers us the opportunity to deal gently and generously with those who, at least in part because of decades of collective decisions and social processes over which they have had little control, find themselves most vulnerable to high water.

Map of the Red River and the central portion of the Red River Valley, Manitoba, depicting the limits of the 1997 flood and protective structures including dikes, ring dikes, and the Red River Floodway.

[1] J. M. Bumsted, Floods of the Centuries: A History of Flood Disasters in the Red River Valley 1776-1997 (Winnipeg: Great Plains Publications, 1997), 19.

[2] Sandford Fleming, Reports on Bridging Red River (Ottawa: n.p., 1879). Available as Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions No. 06108. See also Alan Artibise, Winnipeg: A Social History of Urban Growth, 1874-1914 (Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press, 1975), 61-76.

[3] Journals of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, 2nd session, 1st Legislature, 1872, 36. Also noted in Edgar Stanford Russenholt, Heart of the Continent, Being the History of Assiniboia (Winnipeg: Macfarlane Communications Services, 1968), 151.

[4] Manitoba has five sandbag-making machines, each of which can produce 35,000 sandbags in an eight-hour period. Province of Manitoba, “New Sandbag Machine Stationed in Brandon By Province,” news release, 3 March 2011.
Available online at

[5] Robert W. Passfield, “Duff’s Ditch”: The Origins, Construction, and Impact of the Red River Floodway,” Manitoba History 42 (Autumn / Winter 2001-2002). Available online at

[6] Robert W. Passfield, “Duff’s Ditch”: The Origins, Construction, and Impact of the Red River Floodway,” Manitoba History 42 (Autumn / Winter 2001-2002). Available online at

[7] Gary Doer (Leader of the Opposition). “Premier’s Comments, Apology Request” The Legislative Assembly of Manitoba. 4th session, 36th Oral Question Period, Friday, November 28/97. Available online at

[8] Dan Lett, “Plain Talk about Life in a Flood Zone” The Winnipeg Free Press, 20 April 20 2009, A5. Available online at

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Shannon Stunden Bower is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta. Previously, she was the Research Director at the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute. In 2011, she published Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba, which won the Clio Prize in the Prairie Provinces from the Canadian Historical Association, the Manitoba Day Award from the Association for Manitoba Archives, and the K. D. Srivastava Prize (co-winner) from UBC Press. She has also published articles in journals, including Urban History Review, Environmental History and the Journal of Historical Geography.

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