When You Can’t Restore a Fort - Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park (Friends of Upper Fort Garry)

Upper Fort Garry Provincial Park (Friends of Upper Fort Garry)

By: Penny McMillan, Friends of Upper Fort GarrySeptember 13, 2017 // Architecture & Design, Attractions

In 2005, a group of Winnipeg citizens, The Friends of Upper Fort Garry, raised $10 million in 107 days to save the site of the 19th century HBC Upper Fort Garry from a condo development.  

Upper Fort Garry is arguably one of the most significant historic sites in western Canada. It was the 5th European trading post near the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.  Indigenous peoples had traded here in previous centuries, and expeditions from Québec made the district a centre of French trade from the 1730’s. The Upper Fort became one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s most important posts in the 1800’s, when French and Métis parishes, English-speaking peoples of mixed heritage, Cree and Anishinaabe families, and Selkirk settlers made the Fort the social and economic centre of a vibrant multi-cultural community. It was here in the middle of strife and turmoil that that our ancestors voted to proclaim Manitoba as a province and laid the groundwork for all lands west to the Pacific to join confederation, thus defining our nation Canada.

The original fort, circa 1878 (courtesy of Friends of Upper Fort Garry)

The Fort was dismantled in the late 1880’s and the land sold to other interests. A small portion containing the north gate (called the “Governor’s Gate” since it was the entrance to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Governor’s House) was donated to the City of Winnipeg as a city park. The site was largely forgotten for almost 100 years. Over the intervening years, various buildings were constructed on the remaining property– a curling club, a gas station and a major office building.  

Even with the demolition of the buildings, only 45 per cent of the original site was available for a heritage development so rebuilding the Fort was not an option. So how do you commemorate one of the most significant heritage sites in our country with these challenges?

Re-imagining Upper Fort Garry

Enter artistic interpretation and technology. The designers faced this challenge with incredible creativity and imagination. To understand their philosophy, note that nothing on the site is literal. Everything is an abstraction (interpretation) of what was actually on the site. The designers chose 1870 – the year Manitoba entered Confederation – as their benchmark period to outline the foundations (called “plinths”) of the buildings inside the Fort.  Each plinth contains plantings from that period, making for a diverse landscape design. Every piece of construction on the site symbolizes what was actually there. A stage has been added for performances.  

Detail of the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall (Friends of Upper Fort Garry)

A major attraction in the Park is the Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Heritage Wall. A massive $3 million multi-layered steel wall symbolizing the west wall of the Fort, has been described as “Four Hundred feet of steel and light depicting 300 years of history.” With over 7,000 LED’s embedded in the Wall, light shows tell the history of the site. Viewing the light show, you will see the Mètis buffalo hunt and hear the sounds of the buffalo and the hunters along its 400’ length through 18 channel sound. Thirty-nine icons are sculptured into the Wall depicting important events and places occurring over the past 300 years. The Wall has been labeled “the largest piece of public art in Canada.”

Download the APP

Wi-Fi technology on the site allows visitors to see and learn about the Fort and its history. The GPS-based technology allows visitors to walk the site and view photos of the original buildings and read about the history on their smart phones or iPads. Eliminating the need for plaques and signage, visitors can learn about the history, the people, and the events that took place on this historic site at their own pace and in as much detail as they prefer. Future plans involve multiple language capability in both written and spoke form to make the site fully accessible. You can download the app here

The original entrance to the fort still stands and has been incorporated into the Provincial Park (Friends of Upper Fort Garry)