Winnipeg Skyline

Sunday, February 4, 2007


David Asper’s proposal for the stadium, Lloyd Axworthy's plans for the University of Winnipeg and CentreVenture’s proposals for Portage Ave are a refreshing breath of optimism about Winnipeg’s future. We don’t have enough dreamers and dreams for Winnipeg’s future.

The City of Winnipeg Planning Department long ago gave up this important job. In the 1960s Chief City planner Earl Levin actually dared to dream about downtown, offering the 1969 Downtown Winnipeg Plan which spawned a variety of projects like the Convention Centre, a hotel and office buildings.

In the late 1980s and into the mid 1990’s a volunteer group called the Urban Idea Centre came together to offer ideas but its polite members seemed reluctant to speak publicly with vision and determination. We also had various still-born city plans like Centre Plan which were heavy on consultation but devoid of action.

We need an Urban Idea Centre or a city think tank more than ever. We need to see the Planning Department once again become a generator of ideas. We need the Real Estate Board and its members talking possibilities. We need a broad section of Winnipeggers to conspire for Winnipeg’s future and dream and advocate publicly. We need to identify problem areas and undeveloped lands like the old meat packing site and come up with possibilities and sell proposed uses for them. We need to rediscover the spirit of optimism we had 100 years ago when Winnipeg’s citizens were planning for their children’s and grandchildren’s futures.

And it could start online. People could post ideas and dreams and the like to get some debate going. Let’s start a site which we could call “winnipegdreams.com.” And perhaps the Free Press could offer a weekly column for Winnipeg Dreamers.

But as we have seen in the last decade it takes a business person to get the ball rolling. We need business and private individuals to take action. So let’s hear from more such people about what they would like to see done.


The problem with most of the redevelopment strategies is that they are focused on attracting people that have little reason or interest in going downtown, while almost totally ignoring those that are downtown. For decades, downtown Winnipeg has been a constantly evolving place for the immigrant whether from Europe, Asia, Africa or aboriginal reserves.

Portage Place sought to attract the suburban housewife who never came. Meanwhile it tries to keep out the unsavory people who are there every day: the disadvantaged and the aboriginals. It’s time that downtown began to be planned for its actual residents. Housing, entertainment, education facilities should be planned for those who are there. This might be a hard for city fathers and planners to accept as it might seem like giving up.

Closing Portage and Main was about getting suburbanites home faster, and enticing a developer to invest in underground parking and shopping so that the workers didn’t really have to leave their Portage and Main cocoon. The towers of Portage and Main are an isolated enclave of people who come to work and then beat a quick path home. Should downtown continue to be planned for them when they really refuse to be its street citizens?

All downtown development began with a sense that in the late 1950s early 1960s that Winnipeg was an unprogressive wasteland that had seen virtually nothing new since World War 2. The wish to do something was great. So Winnipeg aped what other cities had done without considering its unique cultural mix or how quickly suburban growth would permanently change the future potential of downtown.

So here we are again. Planning for people who have since fled the downtown, while ignoring its real citizens. Time for a reality check. Unless we are happy “trying to make holes in water.”



The Spanish Flu Panics Canada

By George Siamandas

Is today's flu an echo of the savage Spanish flu that struck the world in 1918? That fall, as our troops returned from WW1, they brought home a silent killer that would afflict one in six Canadians, killing 30,000-50,000 during the winter of 1918. Such pandemics had visited before. In 1889-90 flu affected 40% of the globe.

The Spanish flu hit Canada Sept 9, killing 9 American soldiers in Quebec City. On the same day 400 students in a Quebec College fell ill. By Oct 9, Brantford Ontario reported 2,500,cases. The flu then raged across the prairies. As the troop trains headed west, during that dreadful October, soldiers brought home the disease to their towns, villages and farms. Tens of thousands fell ill. By early October as the death toll mounted communities started to ban public gatherings. Schools, colleges, and universities closed. Across the country most church bells did not ring on Sundays. But Father Trasiuk of Hamilton's Stanislaus Church, had defied the ban, and was fined $25.

Hudson Bay stores remained open but for the protection of customers, staff wore masks. So did employees of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and telephone workers. In more than 100 prairie towns, passengers were not allowed to de-train unless they promised to stay put for the duration of the epidemic. Some towns like Lethbridge and Drumheller threw up a total quarantine.

The most vulnerable were healthy 20-30 year olds, the dangerous age according to the Regina Leader. Their symptoms? A cold that turned into flu. Temperatures of 105. Dreadful aches. And then pneumonia where victims suffocated in their own secretions. Some, bleeding from the nose. At the greatest risk were pregnant women who miscarried and almost always died.

The flu scorched its way through northern communities devastating aboriginal populations. Amongst aboriginals living in tepees and log cabins in the Peace River district, 85% died.

Some became desperate for medical attention. An aboriginal woman whose husband had died, paddled 33 miles down the Kapuskasing River, with a 6 mile portage to find a doctor for her two children. At the Indian Village of Sand Point, near Lake Nipigon, 58 out of 70 were sick. Luckily, only five died. But according to the custom of the day, Indian caskets were painted black, while white victims had their caskets covered in white cloth.

In Calgary they ran out of coffins. And in many rural areas, with no time to bury the dead, corpses were placed on the roofs of their owners' log cabins, out of reach of animals till spring.

After years at the front, returning soldiers could not embrace their loved ones. Anxious wives would meet husbands at the station unable to touch them, or even get near. One, who did, died, shortly after their reunion. Another case poignantly brought home the flu's cruel irony. Airman Alan McLeod of Stonewall, Manitoba became at 18, Canada's youngest Victoria Cross winner. Days after returning to his home town, this young hero, who had shot down three enemy planes and survived a burning plane crash, did not survive the silent killer.

At the peak of the epidemic some doctors saw 80 patients a day and one averaged 58 house calls daily. Few charged for their services. Dr James Colliers practising in Vernon River PEI would take his daughters with him on housecalls so they could do the sweeping or wash dishes. Meanwhile scientists looked desperately for a cure. Winnipeggers Major Dr FT Cadham of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and Doctor Gordon Bell, frantically worked for a vaccine, and found some success. Dr Cadham reported to a national medical conference in 1918 that of their test sample of 528 soldiers admitted to a Winnipeg hospital, no soldier who had taken two doses of the vaccine died. When word got out, Dr Cadham needed a police escort, so desperate were citizens to get the vaccine.

In 1918 almost everyone was nursed at home. People helped their neighbours in whatever way they could. Women volunteered as nurses. Service club members cooked meals in church kitchens and boy scouts delivered the meals. In Ontario the thousands of women volunteers became known as the Sisters of Service. Throughout the country Christmas dinner celebrations were held to thank the volunteers. But there was a sour side too. In Calgary some women posed as private nurses charging as much as $25 per day, while real nurses worked two shifts for only $2. Meanwhile, druggists in Vancouver boosted the price of camphor used as a disinfectant from 60 cents pound to $6.50. Masks sold for a nickel. Preventive measures included bags of camphor, or garlic. At Toronto's Union Station, tin drinking cups were replaced by disposable paper ones. Cinnamon, tobacco, alcohol and goose grease and turpentine mixtures were touted as cures.

Scarcely a family escaped being touched by the flu. Almost everyone lost a mother, a sister, an aunt, a cousin, or a dad. Thousands were left orphans. Others survived to suffer a lifetime of heart and respiratory problems. In 1918, with no national preparedness in place, all the effort had been at the grass roots level. In 1919 the federal govt finally established a health dept. Hospitals were built. Public health improved.

And where did it start? I remains unclear. The Spanish flu is thought to have originated in burning pile of manure at Fort Riley Kansas in March 1918. American troops got sick, subsequently taking it to Europe. It got tagged the Spanish flu because Spain was first to get hit hard and without censorship, the first country to admit it had an epidemic. By the time it was over, influenza had killed 20-30M worldwide. But its cause remained a mystery. In 1933 a British doctor successfully isolated the disease to an airborne virus. Later it was identified as the A type strain.

Today the story of the world's greatest killer is all but forgotten. There is little mention in history books. It's as if it never happened. But could it happen again? And if it does, are we ready for it? Do we really have an effective vaccine today? And can we develop it quickly enough when needed?


The Day They Closed Portage and Main

The Day They Closed Portage and Main

by George Siamandas

On February 24, 1979 the Underground Concourse at Portage and Main was officially opened to the public by Mayor Robert Steen. From that day on pedestrians have been barred from crossing at the famous corner of Portage and Main.

The concourse had been envisioned at the time of the building of the Richardson Building in 1964, and its concourse level was built in the early 1970s with a knock out panel for a future connection. Metro Winnipeg planners of the day felt that the increasing numbers of pedestrians and cars would interfere with one another more and more as the corners were developed. It was also the intention to realize that long standing Winnipeg dream of a weather protected downtown pedestrian walkway. Bernie Wolfe who was a Metro politician attributes the credit for the concourse to Earl Levin who used to be Metro's Chief Planner in the 1960s.

It was quite an engineering feat in that thirty manholes and 120 pipes, tunnels and tubes had to be relocated. All the underground work was done without interfering with traffic above. And it could only have been built after the Floodway was completed, otherwise it would have been prone to flooding.

At the time it was being planned there was small debate and virtually no opposition. Opinion studies done by Streets and Traffic dept the week after it was opened showed high public support for the project at about 80%. But soon it was discovered that it was not accessible by the handicapped and public demands were made to add elevators. To dramatize the issue, Councillor Joe Juken marched illegally over the barriers in 1979. Others like Nick Ternette have also walked across illegally in 1986 and 1995.

There is a lot of consensus that Portaeg and Main should be opened. Most of the general public would like to see it opened during the summer months. After all it is a national landmark. Mayor Susan Thompson has made a commitment that by Jan 1, 1998 she will have the intersection open well in advance for tourists coming to the 1999 Pan Am Games. Tourists who come to Winnipeg who had an image of the famous corner cannot believe that they cannot cross at the street.

Three of the four property owners at the corner have no objections, and the Downtown Biz and the Exchange Biz are for opening it. CentrePlan also has proposals to reopen Portage and Main.

Only one property owner, Trizec, is against it. Bernie Wolfe also remains an adamant opponent of reopening along with the City's Streets and Traffic Department. A 1991 study showed accidents are down 50% with twice the traffic. Also a wind study conducted at the corner in the late 1980s suggests that on windy days, it may be "too dangerous" for pedestrians, now that there are three office towers there.

A compromise would recognize the need to keep traffic moving at peak times and the intersection might only need to be open part of the time. People that have looked at the issue believe that you could open up the crossing between the Richardson Building and the Bank of Montreal with minimal upset to the traffic.

The Richardson corner has the best potential to become a wonderful plaza. The Richardsons could get the ball rolling by considering a major upgrading of their plaza to create a vibrant public space.

The key would be to have some activity, entertainment, an outdoor cafe, a place where the public could sit and watch people and traffic. And to do it with some shelter from the wind and with good outdoor design like lighting and benches.

Trizec and its merchants would also have to be persuaded that they will not lose customers. Attracting more people downtown might even improve their business.



The following are excerpts from the documentary Dreams of Castles in the Sky:

The closure of Portage and Main to pedestrians has raged in controversy for 25 years.

Without pedestrians crossing Portage and Main it lost something. A number of people said that when they put the barriers up you took away the heart of Winnipeg.

In cities that feel vibrant you see the people on the street. When you take them off the street it looks empty.

I personally feel Portage and Main should be opened its perhaps the great intersection in Canada.

There is no question about it is the one icon of Winnipeg that is known more than any other place or location.

I think there are points at which traffic flow of vehicles ought not to be the deciding factor of the character of a place. Where there is a will there is a way.

When they put the barricades up at Portage and Main it was part of an urban planning trend to try to move traffic in and out of the centre of the city faster. What I think experience has shown in the re-energization of downtown, is actually, congestion works better. It makes people feel safer and downtowns aren't freeways. My view is that we should reopen the intersection to pedestrian traffic and bring people back up above ground.

With the opening of the concourse we needed to be where the traffic was. Our customers said we don't like it down there; we don't like to bank underground. We want to go upstairs so we made a decision as a company to listen to our customers; we moved back upstairs.

Plans are underway to reopen the corner to pedestrians and to find ways to celebrate the corner. Only one building owner is opposed.

It's about time. Let's get on with it.