The “forks,” where the Red River and Assiniboine River meet, were the site of Indigenous settlements as far back as 6,000 years ago. Early occupants were likely big game hunters who stayed in the area seasonally to fish and hunt.
Around 1000 CE the forks were occupied by Algonquian-speaking peoples from the east and north who camped there for extended periods of time. Beginning in 1300 CE the Anishinaabe, Cree and Nakota (or Assiniboine) used the area to fish and trade as part of their seasonal rounds. The area attracted fur traders as early as 1738, when Pierre Gaultier La Vérendrye ordered Fort Rouge built at the forks. In 1810, the North West Company established a fur trading post named Fort Gibraltar, which would be replaced by Fort Gibraltar II, or Fort Garry, in 1817. The Cree, Nakota and Métis people were essential to the success of the fur trade, working as hunters, trappers, traders and suppliers.
The nucleus of the future city of Winnipeg was related to the construction of a general store by Henry McKenney in 1862. McKenney built his store where the fur-runners' trail coming down the Assiniboine River to Fort Garry crossed the trail running down the Red River — in present-day Winnipeg, the corner of Portage and Main. Until 1873, when Winnipeg was incorporated as a city, the settlement remained a relatively unimportant part of the larger Red River Colony. When the first city council meeting was held in 1874, the city had a population of 3,700 and was little more than a collection of shacks.
Winnipeg's strategic geographical location made it the natural focus for the western extension of the transcontinental railways. The completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885 brought the city a period of growth and prosperity unequalled in Canadian urban development. A flood of immigrants, high wheat prices, plentiful capital and improved dryland farming all contributed to sustained growth. The city became the wholesale, administrative and financial centre of the West. By 1911, Winnipeg ranked fourth in Canada in manufacturing.
This meteoric rise peaked by 1914, when the city entered a recession. Winnipeg’s economy came to a standstill during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which left a legacy of bitterness and division. The Great Depression plunged business, manufacturing, wholesale trade and the mail-order business into sharp decline. Factories closed and unemployment soared. The city was not lifted out of depression until the beginning of the Second World War. After the war conditions greatly improved, but growth was slow and steady compared to the frenzied pace of the early 20th century.
During this time, the development of oil, natural gas, coal and potash shifted economic power westward. Winnipeg's previous monopoly on the marketing of agricultural products and distribution of goods was challenged by other Prairie cities. However, the city's traditional resources have sustained its commerce and its position as one of the largest cities on the Prairies. Today Winnipeg has a diversified economy, including finance and insurance, manufacturing, aerospace, transportation, information technology, agri-business, and furniture and apparel industries.
River lots and fur trade routes shaped early street patterns. Later the dominant feature was the railway, which physically divided the city in two: the "North End" was the home of most of the city's Slavs and Jews, while the prosperous and politically dominant Anglo-Saxons were concentrated in the west and south. Commerce centred at Portage Avenue and Main Street, and after the coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway industry moved from the riverbanks to the rail lines.
Early architecture was indigenous to the area. Called "Red River Frame," these houses were built of vertical and horizontal logs. Early public buildings and upper class houses were built of limestone in imported styles, and after the railway arrived Winnipeg began to resemble other cities of the time. Prosperity brought greater pretensions, notably the famous "gingerbread" city hall, a picturesque Victorian fantasy built in 1886 and demolished in 1962. Much of the city had to be rebuilt after the disastrous Red River Flood in 1950. In 1968 a floodway, dubbed "Duff's Ditch" after former Manitoba premier Duff Roblin, was opened to protect the city from such disasters. After a major flood in 1997 came close to overwhelming the floodway it was expanded to handle a one-in-700-year flood. The first major shopping centre was built in 1959, and during the 1960s and 1970s Winnipeg changed steadily. Almost the entire urban landscape was made over. A new city hall, convention centre and a Centennial Centre, including a planetarium, concert hall and museum, were completed. Numerous high-rise hotels, banks and office buildings altered the skyline, and industries relocated to new industrial parks.
More major changes occurred in the late 1980s when a stretch of downtown Winnipeg's famous Portage Avenue was dramatically redeveloped with new office and apartment buildings, a major shopping mall, and enclosed pedestrian bridges, which connected much of the downtown. Government and private funds were also used to redevelop many areas, including Chinatown in downtown Winnipeg, the Italian quarter along Corydon Avenue, and downtown's Exchange District, one of the most historically intact turn-of-the-century warehouse areas in North America.
In 1987, the federal and provincial governments and the City of Winnipeg undertook a revitalization of the river junction "forks" area, which had been a railyard and industrial site since the 1870s. When opened to the public in 1989, The Forks provided access to the waterfront for the first time in decades. Now the city’s biggest tourist attraction, The Forks is a public space that includes an interpretive park, historic buildings, a skateboard park and a historic port.
The 2000s saw continued efforts to revitalize the Winnipeg downtown. In 2001 Provencher Bridge, linking downtown Winnipeg with St. Boniface, was completed, and two years later an accompanying pedestrian bridge was opened. The reopening of the Millennium Library in 2005 after an $18 million revitalization and the creation of Waterfront Drive, a downtown residential neighbourhood, have also contributed to the vitality of the downtown core.
Winnipeg changed in several distinct stages from a small, compact, ethnically homogeneous community to a large, sprawling, cosmopolitan city. With the exception of a sharp increase in the early 1880s, growth was steady, with migrants coming primarily from Britain andOntario. These early immigrants established a cultural and economic dominance that persisted until after 1945, despite the arrival of other groups. The city’s population exploded between 1900 and 1913, and by 1911, Winnipeg was the third-largest city in Canada. Rapid growth placed strains on the city, which faced serious problems of public health and providing services to its rapidly increasing population.
The most serious problem created by Winnipeg’s rapid growth was the conflict between the earlier migrants s from Britain and Ontario and the newer immigrants, many of whom were Slavs and Jews who did not fit into the Anglo-Canadian mould. As a result, many of the newer immigrants experienced overt discrimination, ranging from residential segregation to job discrimination, and destruction of their property. A deeply prejudiced majority saw the immigrants as a threat, and by 1920 Winnipeg was a city of isolated and frequently bitter ethnic groups. Tensions eased as immigration declined and natural population growth increased between 1920 and 1960. This decrease in hostilities was apparent when Stephen Juba, a Ukrainian, was elected mayor in 1956. Juba was joined by increasing numbers of other non-Anglo-Saxons on city council and other public positions.
After 1960 the population of the city proper declined as surrounding municipalities grew. In 1972, Winnipeg and these municipalities, including the large concentration of francophones in St Boniface, were unified into one city, dubbed “Unicity.” Winnipeg’s population growth increased noticeably after 2006, due mostly to immigration. Winnipeg has become more cosmopolitan with each succeeding decade and is now one of Canada’s most ethnically diverse cities. Although nearly half of the population identifies their ethnic origin as English, Scottish, Irish or Canadian, according to the 2021 census visible minorities make up about 34 per cent of Winnipeg’s population. The Filipino community is by far the largest visible minority group, accounting for 10.9 per cent of city residents. The next largest visible minority communities are South Asian, Black and Chinese. At 12.4 per cent of the total population, Winnipeg is also home to a large Indigenous population, with Métis accounting for over half the people in this group.
Winnipeg dominates Manitoba’s economy, producing most of its manufactured goods and accounting for the majority of its retail sales. It is still a transportation centre, with extensive rail and air links, the head offices of several major Canadian trucking firms and a Canadian Forces Base. However, the economy has diversified with strong manufacturing and export industries which protect it from boom-or-bust cycles and create a stable, albeit slower-growing economy. The public sector is a major employer, and the life sciences, information and communication technology, advanced manufacturing, and aerospace industries have helped create jobs in recent years. Retail, food services, customer service, and office support are also common occupations. Still the headquarters for Canada’s grain industry, it is home to the country’s only commodity exchange, ICE Futures, formerly the Winnipeg Commodity Exchange. Winnipeg has also retained some of its prominence as a financial and insurance centre. Personal finance company IGM Financial Inc. and Great-West Life Assurance Co., Canada’s largest insurance company, both have their head offices in the city.
Government and Politics
Winnipeg was governed by a mayor and 14 aldermen from seven wards until 1920. After the 1919 General Strike, the ward system was, in effect, divided into different electoral units based on business interests to prevent labour representatives from gaining control of city government. The move worked, for although a few radical mayors and aldermen were elected, the so-called "Citizens' League" retained a majority on council. In 1907, the powerful Board of Control, an executive body elected by the entire city rather than by wards, was created. The Board was representative of the urban reform movement of the time, and concentrated power in the hands of a small group of business elite. The Board was made up of the mayor and four annually elected controllers who carried out the executive work. The board was disbanded in 1918.
The next attempt at electoral reform took place in the 1960s when Winnipeg first created a metropolitan form of government and then moved to a unified, single level of government. Although the division of the region into a number of separate jurisdictions made it difficult to provide services and administer community affairs, the first step towards regional government was not taken until the 1950s. In 1960 the Metropolitan Winnipeg Act was passed, creating a new alignment of seven cities, five suburban municipalities and one town.
The Metropolitan Corporation of Greater Winnipeg was given sole authority over planning, zoning, building, flood control and transportation, which made many of the municipalities unhappy. Through the formation of Unicity in 1972 the provincial government replaced the area municipalities with a 51-member city council that controlled an urban territory with a population of 550,000. With the formation of Unicity Winnipeg became the first large North American city to move beyond the stage of split-level metropolitan government to a single administration.
The original Unicity format has been studied extensively, resulting in further reforms, such as the reduction of the council size from 51 to 30 part-time members including the mayor. In 1992, following the recommendations of the Winnipeg Wards Boundaries Commission, the provincial government further amended the City of Winnipeg Act to significantly redefine the city's political structure. Ward boundaries were again changed and the council was reduced to 16 full-time members, including the mayor. In 2002 the province passed a new City of Winnipeg Charter, which shortened and clarified the 1992 Act while giving the city more flexibility and new authorities such as establishing planning commissions and setting up tax increment financing programs. Winnipeg has seen several notable mayors since the creation of the Unicity. Stephen Juba, who became mayor in 1956, was a populist mayor and held office until 1977 when Robert Steen, who Juba supported, was elected. Unfortunately, Steen died of cancer after only two years in office. Deputy Mayor William “Bill” Norrie then became acting mayor and eventually mayor after a by-election held shortly thereafter. Norrie was re-elected four times and served as mayor until 1992. Norrie spearheaded the redevelopment of the downtown core and was central to the rejuvenation of The Forks and the North Portage neighbourhood.
Virtual unknown Susan Thompson surprised everyone by winning the mayoralty in 1992 to become Winnipeg’s first female mayor. Re-elected in 1995, Thompson provided leadership during 1997’s “flood of the century” and brought major events such as the Pan American Games and World Junior Hockey Championships to the city. Thompson was replaced in 1998 by Glen Murray, who was the first openly gay mayor in Canada.
Murray played an important role in the Big City Mayors' Caucus, and led a campaign to transfer some of the federal gasoline tax to municipalities to support infrastructure programs. In 2004, Murray resigned to run for the federal Liberal Party in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of Charleswood. Sam Katz, who immigrated with his family from Israel in 1951, defeated four veteran politicians to become the city’s first Jewish mayor in 2004 and was re-elected in 2006 and again in 2010. During his third term, Katz was plagued by controversy including conflict of interest allegations.
Katz chose not to run for re-election in 2014, making way for Brian Bowman, a privacy lawyer turned politician, who won with nearly 48 per cent of the popular vote. A Métis man, many believe Bowman to be Winnipeg’s first Indigenous mayor.Bowman won a second mandate in 2018 but decided not to run for a third term. In 2022, former pastor and city councillor Scott Gillingham became mayor of Winnipeg.
Winnipeg has long been a major cultural centre of the Prairie provinces and holds a reputation as a thriving community of literature, sport, religion, music, education and art. It has a vibrant writing community with such internationally recognized authors as Sandra Birdsell. Many novels are also either set in Winnipeg or written by novelists who have lived in the city, including Carol Shields, Jack Ludwig, John Marlyn, Dorothy Livesay, Adele Wiseman, Margaret Laurence and Patricia Blondal.
Winnipeg is the home of the acclaimed Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which has the world's largest collection of contemporary Inuit art. The city's strong theatre community includes the Manitoba Theatre Centre, one of the most important regional theatres in North America, and Rainbow Stage, Canada's oldest continuously operating outdoor theatre, as well as several other theatre companies and the annual Fringe Festival.
Winnipeg is home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Winnipeg's Contemporary Dancers, the Manitoba Opera Association and Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. The city also hosts several annual festivals, including the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, Folklorama, and the famous Winnipeg Folk Festival, held just north of the city. A strong film community includes the internationally renowned Winnipeg Film Group. The Manitoba Museum (formerly the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature), the interactive Manitoba Children's Museum and the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights are located in Winnipeg. The Provincial Archives, the Royal Canadian Mint, and Lower Fort Garry (see Fort Garry, Lower), a historic restoration located north of the city, are also major attractions. Other amenities include the Assiniboine Park Zoo and an extensive park system.
In sports Winnipeg is noted especially for curling and football. Its rinks won the Canadian curling championship at least 12 times between 1928 and 1993, and in 1991 and 2003 hosted the World Curling Championship. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers won the Grey Cup 10 times between 1935 and 1993. In 1972 the Winnipeg Jets joined the World Hockey Association, and then the National Hockey League in 1979. After the 1995-96 season the team was sold and moved to Phoenix, Arizona. However, the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011 when True North Sports and Entertainment purchased the struggling Atlanta Thrashers and relocated them to the city. Fans were ecstatic, and the city is now again home to the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg hosted the fifth Pan American Games in 1967 and again in 1999.
The University of Manitoba (founded 1877), the University of Winnipeg (founded 1871, as Manitoba College), Université de Saint-Boniface(founded 1818) and the more recent Red River Community College, Concord College, Catherine Booth College and Providence College are located in Winnipeg. There are several special educational facilities, such as the Manitoba School for the Deaf and the Winnipeg Technical College. The city has two newspapers, the Winnipeg Free Press (founded 1872) and the Winnipeg Sun (founded 1980), plus several TV stations and local radio stations.