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Wandering Around Winnipeg: Out of the Canadian Wild on the Looney Front

For millennia, this site at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was a trading post for Canada's First Nations, a status only enhanced by the arrival of French fur traders and the British Hudson's Bay Company in the 18th century.
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If you find yourself stuck in Winnipeg for a day or two in the heart of Canada's vast prairies, on your way north to the Arctic wonders of polar bears and icy wastes, west to the marvels of the Pacific north-west, or east to the temptations of the major cities, do not despair -- there are things to do and see in this age-old staging post.

For millennia, this site at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers was a trading post for Canada's First Nations, a status only enhanced by the arrival of French fur traders and the British Hudson's Bay Company in the 18th century.

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Winnipeg from across the Red River

Over time the site grew into the city of Winnipeg, from the Western Cree word for brackish water that described the large lake to the north, embellishing itself with the palatial Manitoba provincial legislative building on the banks of the Assiniboine and donning a fitting urban mantle with high-rises in its compact centre that offset the extensive outward spread of leafy lanes with their aura of suburbia.

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Easily the most striking sight and site here, however, is its latest addition, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

A modernistic confection, it is described by its creator, architect Antoine Predock, as "a symbolic apparition of ice, clouds and stone... dissolving into the sky... the abstract ephemeral wings of a white dove embrace a mythic stone mountain... the creation of a unifying and timeless landmark for all nations and cultures of the world."

Well, I don't know about that, but it looks like a series of huge sloping slabs, the tectonic plates of Mother Earth colliding into each other, with the Tower of Hope soaring from her entrails like a giant latticed Meccano spire affording a superb panorama over the city- and river-scape below. A statue of Gandhi paces beneath.

Views of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

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Inside, glowing alabaster bridge-like ramps lead up through seven large box-like levels in a geometric maze, detailing man's and woman's inhumanity to man and woman in numerous film and other exhibits - all very impressive and desperately sad, from the treatment of Canada's Aboriginal First Nations to the Holocaust and other genocides in Armenia, Ukraine, Rwanda and Srebrenica.

The interior of the Museum of Human Rights

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On the first level, a wall-full of panels in blue, orange and magenta, hundreds of them, headline major landmarks in the battle for human rights and the abuse thereof, starting with the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews in 586, and passing via the rights advocacy of the Roman philosophers Seneca and Cicero, through all the circles of hell and paradise, to the modern day.

Some of the panels in the museum

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Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the United Nations humanitarian agencies and many other rights paladins all have their panel, as does a full roster of the many massacres and violations of the present day, from the Bosnian Serb slaughter of Muslims in Srebrenica and the Khmer Rouge killing fields in Cambodia to the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States and the denial of women's rights..

Some of the exhibit panels

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As was to be expected, there has been controversy over the size of some inclusions and the exclusion of others. Palestinians feel that their rights have been demeaned by the absence of an exhibit on their suffering in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Others feel too much attention is being devoted to the Holocaust. These include members of Canada's large Ukrainian community who would like greater space for Holodmor, the death of millions in the 1930s attributed to Stalin's economic and industrialization policies.

In the domain of human tragedy there's clearly more than enough blame and shame to go around multiple times to touch us all.

Specifically Canadian exhibits, beyond the untold and unutterable horrors visited upon the vast country's original inhabitants, involve one on the depth of virulent anti-Semitism during World War II, and another on the internment of Canadian Japanese at the same time.

Against Jews and Canadian Japanese

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On the far side of the museum, the Louis Riel Esplanade, a Calatrava-like pedestrian bridge with spaghetti cables and support askew, leads across the Red River to Winnipeg's French Quarter, St. Boniface, a neighbourhood of neat tree-lined streets that is home to Riel's tomb and monument.

Riel bridge

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A 19th century leader of the Métis, people of mixed Aboriginal-European descent, Riel helped found the province of Manitoba, but he led two rebellions for Métis rights - the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870 and the North-West Rebellion of 1885. After the latter he was tried for treason and hanged.

His critics saw him as a half-crazed religious fanatic, but French-speakers consider him a hero, and his tomb and monument now lie in the shadow of the huge shell of St. Boniface Cathedral, only the facade of which remains after a fire in 1968.

Riel's tomb

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Cathedral's shell

Back across the Riel bridge, a comfortable half-hour stroll will lead you through the historic Forks at the meeting of the rivers, now a recreation area with a market, tree-lined paths and a skate park, to the massive legislative building - and Golden Boy, a torch-bearing gold-covered bronze statue akin to the Roman God Mercury.

Legislative building

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Officially named Eternal Youth, it presides atop its perch on the building's dome 250 feet above the city. Queen Elizabeth II personally rededicated it after its latest re-gilding during her 2002 Golden Jubilee tour of Canada, of which she is also queen.

Golden Boy

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If you continue along the Assiniboine River and cross over, you'll come to Assiniboine Park with its excellent zoo, ranging from local polar bears and snow white arctic fox to Asian lions, glowing Amur tigers and Nepalese snow leopards, but I prefer my animals in the wild, so I'll leave off here.

[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Time Out in the Adirondacks - Lake George and Ticonderoga]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.