This is the first in a series based on presentations that would have taken place at the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting at Western University in London, Ontario (June 1-3). This post, by Dale Barbour, was scheduled as part of a panel called “The Nature of the City.”
I was having dinner with a group of friends a few months back and I mentioned I was interested in looking into the history of Winnipeg’s Red and Assiniboine Rivers. And, of course, someone had a river story. He recalled that in his youth, probably in early 1980s, he and his friends would bike down to what Winnipeggers call the monkey trails, a network of paths that frame sections of the rivers and jump their bikes into the river. But they were smart. To keep their bikes from sinking them tied life jackets to them so they could bob to the surface after hitting the water.
I’m interested in Winnipeg’s relationship with the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and how it changed over the twentieth century. The bigger project, which I call Muddied Waters: The Social and Environmental Transformation of Winnipeg’s Red and Assiniboine Rivers, looks at how Winnipeg’s relationship with its rivers changed over the course of the twentieth century. Following a classic declensionist arc, Winnipeg’s rivers went from having a central place in the civic life of the city at the start of the twentieth century, to being seen as soiled and degraded by the 1950s, and finally to be a period of recovery in the 1980s with the development of the Forks Historic site and the construction of a network of river walks. Today, the riverbanks are seen as a civic resources and lucrative development spaces.[i]
How do we account for that arc? The usual suspects such as pollution, changing leisure habits, and land development policies play a role, but I want to focus on just one aspect. The role of changing river levels in Winnipeg over the course of the twentieth century.
Environmental historian Richard White who has written about the Columbia River, describes his approach this way, “As I have gotten into middle age, history has seemed less and less about things or ideas or individual persons and more and more about relationships.”[ii]
It’s tempting to say that Winnipeg’s relationship with its rivers has always been defined by flooding. The 1826 flood devastated the early fur trading community and for middle-aged people the flood of 1997 is remembered as the Flood of the Century. But it’s the 1950 flood that redefined the city’s relationship with its rivers. In 1950, one-eighth of the city was flooded, more than 100,000 people were driven from their homes, and damage was estimated at about $125 million or about $1 billion dollars in today’s figures.[iii] The 1950 flood pushed the city to fortify its river banks and build the Winnipeg Floodway, which has, since 1969, navigated floodwaters around the city.
So, 1950 represents a turning point for Winnipeg’s relationship with its rivers as flood protection pushed people back from the rivers. But we also need to look at 1950 as a tipping point into a different environmental regime around the rivers. Donald H. Burn and N.K. Goel have tracked peak flood levels along the Red River at Winnipeg in the period between 1826 and 2000, and their work reveals that the period between 1900 and 1950 was remarkably flood free. There were only three years that exceeded peak flows of 1900 cubic meters per second. That stability allowed Winnipeg to encroach on the riparian environment and create riparian play spaces. We can see this when we look at plans for Kildonan Park in the city’s north end. Originally, the park included river-side walking paths and docks that allowed people to engage with the river. The 1950 flood tore the park’s riverside infrastructure away and it was never replaced. The 2015 Kildonan Park Master Plan demonstrates how Winnipeg is trying to rebuild links between the park and the river.
Winnipeg armoured its river banks to protect against another flood after 1950 but, and I think this is what is missed, stability never returned. Between 1950 and 2000, there are eleven years that exceed peak flows of 1900 cubic meters per second. So, prior to 1950 the Red River was relatively stable, after 1950 it was prone to high water events every few years.[iv] And while the Red River Floodway prevents flood water from topping the city’s river banks, it does not hold back enough water to prevent the riparian environment from being deluged. By design and policy, a degree of natural river rise can take place.
But of course, what is natural? Average annual precipitation in Manitoba has increased by about seven per cent since 1950 but that’s not the critical factor driving the increased instability in Winnipeg’s river levels.[v] Instead, we need to look upstream. Shannon Stunden Bower’s Wet Prairie: People, Land, and Water in Agricultural Manitoba looks at how there was a conscious effort to tame the “wet prairie” in Manitoba by creating a drainage system to get water off farmland and an intellectual infrastructure to manage that process.[vi] So we’re not getting more water, we’re moving if far more efficiently off the land and into the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
Let’s return to Richard White, who argues that rivers have a reciprocal relationship with the land around them.[vii] When we change the river’s environment, the river responds. Pouring water into the Red and Assiniboine upstream pushes more water through the rivers downstream and changes the physical and social environment in Winnipeg. The one follows the other.
So why did Winnipeg turn away from its rivers? Instability played a role. It helped turn the riparian environment into a marginal space. Even today, as the city of Winnipeg makes a conscious effort to monetize its riverbanks, the challenge remains. The downtown river walk that spans outwards from the Fork Historic Site, for example, routinely spends much of the summer under water.
But while the instability of the riparian environment has pushed sanctioned
uses and civic infrastructure back from the riverbanks, it has also allowed marginal
users in. It created a monkey trails culture around the rivers. As Valerie
Korinek has noted in her work Prairie
Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada,
1930-1985, the riverbanks in downtown Winnipeg were claimed as lucrative gay
cruising spaces by the 1960s.[viii]
Elsewhere we could find straight couples having sex, people drinking, bedding
down for the night, or jumping their bikes into the river after carefully tying
lifejackets to them. The liminal nature of the riverbank continues today in
spaces where the use of the riparian space by homeless people or marginalized
populations remains contentious. Relationships never end, they simply transform
into something different.