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Manitoba History: Review: Christopher Dafoe, Winnipeg: Gateway to the West

by Lewis Stubbs

Number 37, Spring / Summer 1999

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Christopher Dafoe, Winnipeg: Gateway to the West. Winnipeg, Great Plains Publishers, 1998, 233 pp, illus., ISBN 1-89428300-7.

Whereas ten years ago it would have been difficult to find a pictorial history of Winnipeg, now they are something of a cottage industry. Christopher Dafoe’s Winnipeg Gateway to the West, will be adorning many a coffee-table. If your taste runs toward history lite, then this handsome volume should quench your thirst. The author adequately integrates early works of art with photographs from all the usual repositories to tell a story. The text is written in a clear and concise fashion punctuated with the style and charm Winnipeggers have come to associate with Dafoe’s newspaper columns. Still, for all the fine writing, well chosen photographs and high quality production values, this work lacks the depth of research necessary to make a significant contribution to Winnipeg’s historiography. The book would make a good primer for neophytes of the City’s history or for nostalgia buffs who prefer to remember the “glory days” when our possibilities seemed as boundless as the prairie sky. Anyone seeking a detailed, balanced history should look elsewhere.

A general impression was that this project could well have been a history for hire, commissioned for Winnipeg’s 125th anniversary. If true, it might explain the lack of a critical edge to the work. For example, there is little analysis of how the once vibrant “Chicago of the North” is currently being surpassed by Hamilton to become Canada’s eighth largest city. In recent years the descriptive titles that have come Winnipeg’s way have carried a negative value like “Child Poverty Capital” of Canada. A photo of the boarded-up buildings on Portage Avenue would have provided a realistic contrast to the scene from the Forks. As the book makes no claim to being a definitive history, carping over details that were left out by discretion or oversight would be unfair. However, it is jarring when much is made about the ethnic diversity of Winnipeg, to find that the only photograph of people of colour is a stock shot from Folklorama. Winnipeg’s one great resource is its citizenry. The biographical sketches of lesser known citizens like Billy Code and Lillian Gibbons are excellent. This volume would have been the ideal format in which to provide a cultural mix with people like Margaret Benedictsson, Ann Ross, Mary Kardash, Dr. Joseph Du, Piercy Haynes or Tommy Prince. If ours is a city renowned for its “social conscience,” where are references to Sister Geraldine MacNamara, the founder of Rossbrook House, Winnipeg Harvest’s David Northcott, or Tom Jackson and his Huron Carol concerts.

The final chapter, “Builders of the City,” has to be a tip of the cap to the companies and organizations who subsidized the book. How else would Pioneer Grain, Gendis Inc., or Palliser Furniture Ltd. not merit mention? One is left with the disturbing notion that casinos have played a more prominent role in the building of Winnipeg than either the two national railways or Eaton’s and The Bay. Winnipeg still needs, and deserves, a first rate history.

Main Street looking north from Portage Avenue, Winnipeg, 1912.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg - Streets - Main c1912 6 (N17779).

Page revised: 30 August 2011

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