Author & Photo credits: Beth Pollock
Trace, by Rebecca Belmore, is a wall hanging made from over 15,000 clay beads that depicts a blanket. The artist asked students to help create the beads by holding wet clay from the Red River in their fists, and then letting the beads dry. The result is a work of art where each of those 15,000 beads bears a person’s handprint. This beautiful wall hanging symbolizes the impact of the actions of many people working together, and is one of the standout pieces in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
If you’re going to Winnipeg, chances are you’ve already set aside time to visit CMHR – maybe you’ve even planned your trip around it.
But the Museum of Human Rights is just one of Winnipeg’s terrific museums and galleries. The Winnipeg Art Gallery boasts an amazing collection of Inuit art. Le Musée de Saint-Boniface Museum has informative displays about Louis Riel and the history of the province’s Métis community. And the tiny Urban Shaman in Winnipeg’s Exchange District features a series of exhibitions, highlighting some of the most talented Indigenous artists at work today.
Canadian Museum for Human Rights
Architect Antoine Predock has created a standout home for the Museum of Human Rights. The panes on the exterior of the building, the Glass Cloud, are made of more than 1300 custom-cut pieces of glass, and symbolize a dove’s folded wings. The journey to the top culminates with the Tower of Hope, a glass tower that lets in the light for a lovely viewing experience.
Near Trace, in the Indigenous Perspectives gallery, hangs the largest beaded Métis artwork ever created. Jennine Krauchi’s Octopus Bag is twenty-six feet tall, and includes the names of indigenous communities that were displaced by colonialism. Traditionally, octopus bags were named for the eight tassels that hung from the bottom, and were used by Métis males to carry everything they needed to start a fire. This meticulously beaded artwork is as impressive at a distance as it is close up.
In the Canadian Journeys gallery, eighteen alcoves illustrate the history of human rights in Canada, including same-sex marriage, the right to vote, and workers’ rights. Each exhibit also tells the stories of individuals affected by the fight for these rights. The story of Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (also called Keewednanung) was particularly moving: after marrying a non-Indigenous man, she lost her legal status as a native person. She sued the federal government in a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Although she lost, she’s seen as a pioneer in the movement that eventually led to this section of the Indian Act being overturned in 1985, when Lavell and other Indigenous women regained their status.
The Protecting Rights in Canada gallery features an interactive game that lets you watch a summary of cases that went to the Supreme Court, such as euthanasia. You vote on what your verdict would have been, and then votes are tallied and displayed, so you can compare your decision with that of other visitors. At the end, you hear what the Supreme Court decision was, and why.
These are just a few of the highlights from my visit. It would be easy to spend half a day here and not scratch the surface.
Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Centre
Urban Shaman is an artist-run gallery that features some of the best of today’s indigenous artists, with exhibits that change about every six weeks.
When I visited, the gallery featured The Ephemerals, a three-woman artist group (Jaimie Isaac, Niki Little, and Jenny Western). Their display examined perceptions of Indigenous identity in various ways, with a focus on clothing (paper dolls, zine drawings, and dressed mannequins). The exhibit included a pop-up gallery that sold both their work and the work of other Indigenous artists.
Urban Shaman is located in Winnipeg’s fascinating Exchange District, a National Historic Site that features 150 buildings built between the 1880s and 1920s. The Walker Theatre (now the Burton Cummings Theatre) was one of the largest and most opulent of its time. Its 1909 performance of Ben-Hur featured a chariot race scene with three chariots, each pulled by four horses. The horses were set on treadmills so they appeared to be racing across the stage.
While you’re in the area, look for the Grain Exchange Building, the McKim Building (originally the J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store), the Telegram Building, and the Earn International Building, all architectural standouts.
Winnipeg Art Gallery
The Winnipeg Art Gallery holds the largest collection of Inuit art anywhere in the world, with over 13,000 pieces, including work from virtually every Inuit community. Sculptures come from the Baffin Region (which includes Cape Dorset), the Nunavik Region (which includes Inukjuak), the Kivalliq Region, and the Kitikmeot Region. When WAG opens its Inuit Art Centre in 2020, this brilliant collection will have a permanent home.
But in the meantime, the gallery does its collection proud. When I visited, the exhibition SakKijâjuk (which means “to be visible”) was showcasing the work of Labrador Inuit artists in a variety of media. Chesley Flowers’ “The George River Herd” was carved from wood and antler. Shirley Moorhouse created the ethereal wall hanging “Goose Reflecting.” And Michael Massie’s “Pondering Mythology” was carved from a variety of materials, including serpentine, whalebone and brass.
Le Musée de Saint-Boniface Museum
The charming Saint-Boniface Museum is small but packed with artifacts from, and information about, the early Métis and Francophone communities in Manitoba. The history of Louis Riel, political leader of the Métis and founding father of the province, takes centre stage. Museum director Vania Gagnon is herself a relative of Riel – she’s his 1st cousin, four times removed.
“I grew up watching my own parents advocate for French language schools in Winnipeg,” she said, smiling. “I guess advocacy runs in the family.” Between 1916 and 1994, public French-language schools were illegal, and it was at the discretion of school divisions whether part of the day would be taught in French. Vania’s parents’ advocacy paid off, and she was the first class to graduate from the Franco-Manitoba School division.
The story of Riel’s life – from childhood to politician, from his role as leader of the Métis people to his execution – is laid out in a series of displays, where one of the exhibits is a trunk that once belonged to him. Other features in the museum include the fur trade, Indigenous textiles and beadwork, and the history of the Grey Nuns.
Notes: The author was a guest of Tourism Winnipeg and Travel Manitoba, who did not review or approve this story.
What to do
Canadian Museum for Human Rights: 85 Israel Asper Way
Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Centre: 290 McDermot Ave
Winnipeg Art Gallery: 300 Memorial Blvd
Le Musée de Saint-Boniface Museum: 494 Taché Ave
Where to stay
Fort Garry Hotel: One of the great hotels built by the railroads, Fort Garry Hotel opened in 1913. Built in chateau style, the public areas are elegant with soaring ceilings. The Palm Lounge offers drinks and live piano music in the evenings. Don’t miss the Spa at Fort Garry, said to be the best in the city. 222 Broadway
Where to eat
King & Bannantyne: A casual spot that excels at soups and sandwiches, just around the corner from the Urban Shaman Centre in the Exchange District. 100 King St
Promenade Café and Wine: This cozy French restaurant is in St. Boniface, just a short walk from the museum. I visited on a cold evening, and the French onion soup with crusty bread couldn’t have been more perfect. 130 Provencher Blvd