Visiting The Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba: Where the Past and Present Merge

The Forks, located where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, has been a meeting place for over 6000 years. It has a storied history, but over the last 30 years, the city and province has turned this place into one of the province’s foremost destinations for tourists and locals alike.

The Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba
  The Forks development sits on an area of 5.5 hectares adjacent to the heart of Winnipeg. Photo Credit: The Forks

Two families arrive at the juncture of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers to renew acquaintances with friends they have not seen for a year. During their visit, they make purchases of items they want and need for the weeks and months ahead. As they wander near the forks of these two great rivers–more and more visitors arrive from throughout the nearby region–and before long it resembles a full-on party—with dancing and revelry going deep into the night.

The year is 4000 BC, and it is at this place which was the Aboriginal gathering place for a number of Manitoba tribes of that day.

A New Day Dawns at The Forks

Between the early aboriginal occupancy, and when the leaders of all three levels of government eventually made the commitment to revive what was becoming an abandoned and derelict part of the city, it was the centre of the early fur trade, the exchange yards for a number of railways, and an immigration centre welcoming new settlers from Europe and beyond. 

Fast forward 6000 years from its early foundations, and in many ways, not much as changed from its core purpose. It is still one of history’s longest lasting trade centres.

Today about four million people visit The Forks annually. Now a major riverside development, it has become–not only the place where Manitobans meet—but a destination few visitors to the city of Winnipeg are likely to pass up when they are in town.

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The Forks is a Place for Families and Friends

The Forks, Manitoba
There is an excellent view of the city from the viewing platform at the top of the tower. Photo Credit: Ron Pradinuk

In the same manner, my own family has a shared history of going to The Forks often to partake in many of the multitude of activity options available.

It began with pancakes for my children, and later grandchildren in the Original Pancake House (celebrating 65 years in 2023) when we visited the Forks Market. Later it was regular visits to the Children’s Museum, or for skating in The Plaza, recognized as “Canada’s best and largest urban skate plaza and bowl complex”.

As skateboarding became uber popular, the new “SK8 Park” was built to offer a safe and exciting venue for this ever-growing sport.

There is no season when my wife and I don’t meet friends for drinks, to watch entertainment in the Festival Plaza outdoor theatre, or to welcome in a New Year at Canada’s, and Manitoba’s, biggest celebration.

The Forks is “Manitoba Made”

Shops at The Forks
The Forks is a place to grab a Manitoba made souvenir, or to simply support local makers. Photo Credit: Ron Pradinuk

In the shops—we can always find “Manitoba Made,” where new entrepreneurs offer locally created unique items and art.  The Forks Market Food Hall mirrors Manitoba’s welcoming multicultural nature–with menu items originating from the four corners of the globe, prepared by Manitoba’s newest and oldest brand names—some of which, like the pancake house, have been the foundation of Manitoba’s food scene for decades.

Zach Peters, The Forks Communications and Marketing Manager, outlined the nature of shops and food outlets they prefer to welcome, in addition to established favourites.

“We are always trying to be innovative,” he said. “Our shops, similar to our food vendors, we see as the entrepreneurial incubation space where owners feel they can test out an idea to see if it works.”

Wandering around the grounds of The Forks, at any given time you will find a rotating selection of food trucks–with plenty of spaces to sit and enjoy these unique taste treats.

In this place from whence the history of the city, the province–and even the west evolved, it is easy to enjoy The Forks experience over a number of days.

A Meeting Place Where History Is All Around You

With the Museum as a backdrop, visitors enjoy a concert in the Festival Plaza outdoor theatre.
With the Museum as a backdrop, visitors enjoy a concert in the Festival Plaza outdoor theatre. Photo Credit: The Forks

New Canadians Arrive En Masse Via Rail

It’s immigration sheds, which operated between 1870 and 1920, processed thousands of people monthly, and the site became known as “The Gateway to the West.” Situated close to the original (and still an operating CN Station), arrivals from the east and the south could quickly make their way to share out their information to the agents who welcomed them. 

Many of the greatest railway companies of the time helped make Winnipeg the connecting and transfer point for travellers, as well as for goods on their way to market. 

Step inside any one of the still existing building (now part of The Forks Market), and you will appreciate why Winnipeg in its day was known as “Chicago of the North.”

It was only the building of the Panama Canal (which meant goods did not have to be loaded, and off loaded, to be shipped over land), which prevented Winnipeg from becoming as large as Chicago—and a great commerce centre to the world.

This important link to history is part of the reason The Railroad Museum has been located at The Forks.

While The Forks may still be an active trade centre for visitors and locals—the range of activities and discoveries for people within The Fork–are immense. 

Honouring First Nations

The Forks was the traditional gathering place of the Cree, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Dakota and Oji-Cree.
The Forks was the traditional gathering place of the Cree, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Dakota and Oji-Cree. Photo Credit: Tourism Winnipeg

The history of its First Peoples—Cree, Ojibwe, Assiniboine, Dakota and Oji-Cree–have been honoured in this, their traditional territory. As has the recognition that it is also recognized as the Birthplace of the Metis Nation–and the home of perhaps Canada’s most famous Metis, Louis Riel. 

The Oodena Celebration Circle, meaning heart of the city, is one of the areas where indigenous culture comes alive. Pow Wows and other entertaining and informative events are scheduled regularly. When programs are not taking place, it is also a quiet area in which to contemplate the importance at this confluence of rivers even to this day.

A few steps away, a curved wall marked with plaques along the way shows the foundations for this history. Using audio tour headphones, with narrations by those whose fore-parents have been the foundations for this history, they will lead you through the proof of the past, and the promise of tomorrow on this sacred land.

Explore The Forks On Your Own Terms – By Foot or Boat!

Perhaps the most popular stroll, appropriately call the Riverwalk, follows the wind of the Assiniboine until it reaches the seat of Manitoba’s Government, the Provincial Legislative Buildings. It provides an introduction to the St Boniface Cathedral—located in the heart of what helped make Winnipeg one of the largest French communities outside of Quebec.

Saint Boniface is one of Winnipeg’s most exciting neighbourhoods, by the way.

The water taxi tour gives visitors a different view of the legislative buildings and an introduction to St. Boniface.
The water taxi tour gives visitors a different view of the legislative buildings and an introduction to St. Boniface. Photo Credit: Ron Pradinuk

Don’t feel like walking? Hop aboard one of the Riverboat Tours which will cruise you through these historic waters–giving a different view of the city and some of the wildlife that is often spotted along the shores, or sitting perched on some of the trees as you sail past.

Be there in winter, and in addition to the skate plaza, you can skate your way on the river which becomes one of the longest skating trails in the world. With a number of award-winning warming huts along the way, it truly is a different way to capture a feel for the city of Winnipeg.

Building the area into a tourist destination, with lots of unique attractions throughout the property is important, says Peters, but the goals are bigger than that. 

Around The Forks, and inside The Forks Market building there are spaces created just for people to rest, read and play games like chess or checkers.

Zach Peters reinforced that these spaces are part of the culture The Forks has created as a centre “where the communal drive is hugely important–where people can come in and not spend a dime. We are Winnipeg’s meeting place. You and I could sit here for hours chatting and not have any issues—or we could choose a meal and spend a few bucks.”

For tourists, this is the place to come if “they want to come to a place where the locals hang out,” he added.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights

A father walks with his son towards a stylish reflective building
Museum of Human Rights – Photo credit: Kevin Wagar

Recognized world-wide for its unique design, it is what is inside that recognizes how important it is for us to stand up for the rights of all peoples. Even with an overview of past atrocities, it resonates how our hopes for the future can be more brightly illuminated through the knowledge of what we must all do to prevent abuses of all kinds.

This February was my second visit to the The Canadian Museum for Human Rights —the first, an interesting but surface walk-through. This time I spent almost six hours, and could have stayed longer. There is no doubt the messaging will stay with me forever.

It does not hide or whitewash Canada’s sins in its history—Residential Schools, the expulsion of Acadians and others—but it also demonstrates how Canada has stepped up to pass laws which have led to the capture and deportation of known criminals who have engaged in crimes against humanity.

Where to Stay

There is only one hotel right on The Forks property, but it is a good one. It is within minutes of every on-location attraction. The Inn at the Forks is a locally owned boutique style hotel, with a spa, banquet rooms and arguably, one of the best restaurants in the entire city. There are lots of free parking spots available, and for families, it is a directly across from the Children’s Museum.

As much as there is to see and do at The Forks today, Peters indicates that this is only the first chapter with many more exciting plans for the future.

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