From flapper pie to snorkelling with belugas, this province is full of surprises—and dill pickle vodka!
Despite growing up in one of Manitoba’s neighbouring provinces (Ontario), a family road trip to Winnipeg and beyond was never entertained, even though it was almost the same distance to Florida (2,000 km/1,240 miles and just as many fist fights over A&W fries in the back seat).
The fifth province to join Confederation in 1870 (and not without some bloodshed) deserves a little limelight beyond what it’s naively synonymous with: “Winterpeg,” polar bears, Crown Royal production, and the ol’ joke about if your dog runs away, you can still see him running three days later because it’s so flat.
Manitoba is thought to be derived from the Cree word Man-into-wahpaow, which means “the narrows of the Great Spirit.” Lake Manitoba narrows to half a mile at its centre and, curiously, the waves turning on the rocks along the north shore produce eerie bell-like wailing sounds. The First Nations believed this sound came from a huge drum beaten by the spirit Manitou.
According to a 2012 Statistics Canada survey, 195,900 aboriginal people lived in Manitoba in 2011. Comprising 17 percent of the total population of Manitoba, the aboriginal population is higher here than in any other province in Canada.
Regrettable History 101
During Confederation negotiations, Canada mismanaged its promise to guarantee the Métis rights to their land. Post-Confederation, an influx of settlers from Ontario and Iceland, as well as Mennonite migrants, threatened to overwhelm Manitoba’s original inhabitants.
With a valuable monopoly on the fur trade, the territory was fiercely coveted by First Nations, Métis, settlers and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Despite Assiniboine, Dakota, Cree and Dene occupation of the land for nearly 15,000 years (and Ojibwa 300 years ago), the Hudson’s Bay Company had controlled Rupert’s Land (modern-day Manitoba) since 1670. The influx of hungry European settlers in 1812 led to land grants by the British Crown (the Red River Colony that is now Winnipeg).
When the U.S. purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, Canada and the British government were on tenterhooks. Easily accessed by waterways in the north, Rupert’s Land was threatened, and the government of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, with help from some deep British pockets, purchased the territory from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Naturally, no residents—First Nations, Métis or Europeans—were consulted about this transfer.
The Métis resisted the loss of their colony and land, and in 1869, under Louis Riel, they declared their own provisional government and negotiated their entry into Confederation. A mob of Ontario Protestants, who rallied against this notion, realized the enormity of the disagreement when Thomas Scott, a group member, was court-martialled by Riel and executed by firing squad. The standoff was lengthy, and resistance dissipated with the Manitoba Act of 1870, which granted the Dominion of Canada the lands it desired while also establishing the province of Manitoba. The Métis were granted title to their lands on the Assiniboine and Red rivers. As for Riel, he fled as British and Canadian troops arrived hot on his tail.
Manitoba borders Saskatchewan to the west, Ontario to the east, Nunavut to the north, and Minnesota and North Dakota to the south. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s not all flat. The Canadian Shield stretches across 60 percent of its northern surface, and the southwestern mountain chain includes the Duck, Pembina and Porcupine ranges. Lake Winnipeg is the fifth-largest lake in Canada (it’s bigger than Lake Ontario), and its entire watershed drains northeast into Hudson Bay via the Nelson River. Located in the longitudinal centre of Canada (now there’s a Jeopardy question!), Manitoba is a patchwork of muskeg, grassland, black spruce forest and tundra. Three ice-free months a year allow for wheat shipments to be exported from Churchill, the only port for the Prairie provinces in Hudson Bay.
Flora and Fauna 101
This birding hot bed is designed for listers! Here, you can find American three-toed woodpeckers, burrowing owls, rock ptarmigans, spruce grouse, wood storks and the province’s official bird, the great grey owl. While the darling polar bears and enchanting belugas garner the most attention, the plains bison is the official mammal of Manitoba.
In 1906, the pasque flower (Anemone patens)—or Prairie crocus, as it’s affectionately known—was dubbed the provincial flower. Its furry mauve petals make it appear as though it’s right out of the pages of a fairy tale.
As the province faces the need for farm diversification, herbs have become a viable alternate crop. Farm bankruptcies have increased at alarming rates across Canada, with three-quarters occurring on the Prairies. Over 100 different herbs can be grown in Manitoba, with the most popular choices being American ginseng, purple coneflower, St. John’s wort, feverfew and milk thistle.
And we should give a collective nod to Manitoba for taking sandwiches to the next level. As Harrowsmith staffer and proud Manitoba expat Diana McLeod politely informed us, “Southern Manitoba is one of the biggest growers of mustard. Each year, the majority of the harvest is shipped to Dijon, France, processed, and then returned to us in little jars. No one can say that Manitoba doesn’t cut the mustard.”
*Your Curated Trip Itinerary
Manitoba is the kind of province that will pull you in every direction. You can snorkel with belugas in Churchill or have a front-row seat to the aurora borealis, which is visible 300 nights a year in the northern region. Museum lovers will be satiated with the likes of the New Iceland Heritage Museum, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre (the largest marine reptile fossil collection in Canada). Anglers will be wide eyed before sunrise in the hopes of reeling in some Arctic grayling (the “sailfish of the north”), mooneyesor the bucket list fish of fly, hard-tackle and ice anglers: the aggressive tiger trout. You can rent fat-tire or city cruiser bikes from White Pine Bicycle Co., jump in a Tundra Buggy or simply eat a lot of flapper pie (vanilla custard topped with meringue in a graham cracker crust—it’s a Prairie thing!).
The following list is by no means comprehensive. This is just a teaser, a micro-list of some cool things to experience in Manitoba.
The International Peace Garden, Boissevain
The International Peace Garden is located at the centre of the Turtle Mountains, the spiritual union of the Great Plains, the Midwest and the Prairies, on the international border of North Dakota and Manitoba. The 2,339-acre property was the verdant vision of Henry J. Moore, a horticulturist and teacher from Islington, Ontario. Designed to celebrate the peace between Canada and the United States, the garden attracted more than 50,000 attendees to its dedication ceremony in July 1932. Since then, several monuments have been integrated into the green space. The Peace Chapel (1970) straddles the Canada-U.S. border, as does the 37-metre (121 foot) tall Peace Tower (1982) and the 9-11 Memorial, which consists of 10 steel girders from the former World Trade Center (2002). The park has camping and picnic facilities and a contemporary 17,600-square-foot interpretive centre (2010). It’s open year-round, and the spring and summer colour show is stunning thanks to over 150,000 flowers. Don’t miss the North American Game Warden Museum or the conservatory, with its 6,000-specimen collection of exotic trees, succulents and cacti. You won’t lose track of time, either, as the Carillon Bell Tower sounds every 15 minutes, with 14 chimes. peacegarden.com
Assiniboine Park, Pooh Gallery, Winnipeg
Shortly after graduating from the Ontario Veterinary College, Harry Colebourn joined the military at age 24. Prior to the First World War, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn bought a Canadian female black bear from a trapper for $20 and named her Winnie, after his adopted hometown of Winnipeg. Colebourn donated Winnie to the London Zoo when he went to the front lines to aid the horses involved in the conflict. Winnie inadvertently became the inspiration behind A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.
The Pooh Gallery illustrates the iconic bear’s story through diary entries, photos and archives from Colebourn’s personal collection from the Great War of 1914–18. Caring for Winnie, even from afar, was his saving grace during the war. By 1916, Winnie had become a celebrity. It was in the early 1920s that she attracted the attention of the young Christopher Robin Milne and his father, A.A. Milne. As we know, A.A. Milne created the supreme fantasy world around Christopher and his toy bear, which he named after Colebourn’s beloved pet. In a depressed post-war era, Milne’s timeless fantasy world was just the balm for all ages. Remembering the Real Winnie is one of the latest additions to the gallery, offering a deeper glimpse into veterinary practice during the First World War, military life and the legacy of Winnie-the-Pooh. assiniboinepark.ca
The Forks, Winnipeg
At the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, The Forks pays tribute to a 6,000-year-old meeting ground for Indigenous people, European fur traders, immigrants and railway pioneers. The abandoned rail yard is now a hotbed of culinary cred and creativity. Old horse stables have been converted into vendor stalls to create the Forks Market. Upstairs, the Market Loft showcases 300 local and Canadian artists. Visit the Forks Trading Company to find a bar of the Stone Field Shaving Company’s North of Fifty body soap, a balance of charcoal and green clay soap wrapped in a page from an aviation book. Don’t stop there! Grab a hot dog from Skinner’s (est. 1929), possibly the oldest hot dog vendor in Canada. Stock your pantry with pickled brussels sprouts or pumpkin pickles from Grass Roots Prairie Kitchen. You’ll also need to pick up some organic Manitoba sunflower oil and carrot marmalade for good measure. While The Forks hosts dozens of events throughout the year, this one can’t be missed: the Crokicurl Tournaspiel. Curling and crokinole unite! It doesn’t get any more Canadian than that. The larger-than-life crokinole game, played with actual curling rocks, is civilized—the winning team is treated to mini-doughnuts or a round of drinks from The Common. theforks.com
Capital K Distillery, Winnipeg
Manitoba’s first craft distillery and tasting room is a spirit-ual experience, for sure. These craft spirits are playful. How about a Prairie Cherry Tall Grass Gin Cooler? I’m leaning toward the Tall Grass Dill Pickle Vodka. The grain-to-bottle elixir is made from 100 percent Manitoba wheat and rye. Infused with horseradish, cuke, peppercorns and dill, it’s a genuine taste of Manitoba. Add it to a classic Canadian Caesar or simply rock it! Join master distiller Jason Kang on an intimate tour of the distillery or sign up for general and bartender Jesse Hillebrand’s crash-course cocktail class and learn how to shake and swirl four drinks. capitalkdistillery.com
Barn Hammer Brewery, Winnipeg
You have to go with the flow here, and the flow includes really clever pints like Grandpa’s Sweater Oatmeal Stout, the Fur Trader (seasonal), and the limited-release Strawbarian Milkshake IPA made with Cascade and Amarillo hops and 240 kg (530 pounds) of ripe Manitoba strawberries. Pick up a growler and proceed to the Mongolian yurt below to spy on the night skies with some of that signature flapper pie. barnhammerbrewery.ca
R.O.C. and the Fern Orchard and Gardens, Lowe Farm, Morris
Do you want the farm stay without the early wakeup call and back-breaking mucking of stalls? Why not unplug in a sleek cottage with no running water, free sunsets and U-pick certified organic fruit and vegetables steps away. The orchard is a wonderland of apples, apricots, blackberries, cherries, currants, grapes, gooseberries, haskap berries, hazelnuts, highbush cranberries, raspberries, Saskatoon berries, sea buckthorns and strawberries. The two garden cottages have limited electricity and a reclaimed barnboard outhouse for a truly no Wi-Fi kinda feel. Founders Eric Gluck and Jodi Griffith are ambitious and Zen all at once, encouraging guests to co-create with them in their ever-evolving space. rocf.ca
There are so many good reasons why Manitoba landed on Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2019 list of top 10 regions to visit. Send us a postcard and let us know what you loved the most!
Jules Torti’s work has been published in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. With experiences as a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer, she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.