• Upper Fort Garry at The Forks, in downtown Winnipeg (Photo: Colincan/Wikimedia Commons)

In the early days of Western Canada, the creaking of a wooden ox carts meandering across the Manitoba plains could be heard for kilometres. This sound will soon return to the landscape, but in a most unlikely place: near the corner of Assiniboine Avenue and Main Street, in downtown Winnipeg. Here, the new Upper Fort Garry Heritage Provincial Park plans to bring the past to life.

In the mid-1800’s Upper Fort Garry was the hub of commercial and political activity in the West. It’s where Rupert's Land became part of Canada, and where Louis Riel established his provisional government, among other historic events.

Decades of Winnipeggers have walked past the Governor’s Gate, the last remaining piece of the fort, without realising its significance. The memory of Upper Fort Garry continued to fade until nine years ago, when a group of citizens–the Friends of Upper Fort Garry (FUFG)–decided to reclaim it. 

“We assembled what amounted to about three and a half acres of site of what really was the birthplace of Manitoba, and a very instrumental part of the evolution of Western Canada.” Says Garry Hilderman, an FUFG board member. “We always felt that it was too important a site to develop in to anything else.”

After years of toil, millions of dollars raised, three buildings demolished and many hours of development, the site of Upper Fort Garry is now established as a provincial park. The site is not a replica, but an interactive experience with three main components- the grounds, a future interpretive centre and its crowning piece- the Heritage Wall. 

Currently in development, the wall will be 120 metres long, and almost four metres high, and will stand in the place of the fort's original Western wall.  It will be made of four layers of CorTen steel, each about four centimetres thick. Over time it will weather to a deep rust colour. Together the four layers will form iconic images of Manitoba's past, but the main attraction of the wall is the incorporated light and sound display.

This display will be made of hundreds of holes punched into the wall and lit with LED lights programmed to display moving pictures accompanied by sound. The motion sensors installed along the wall will make it entirely interactive. 

“Our challenge was how do we make this park a lovely place to have lunch, and at the same time generate intrigue as to why these symbols are there” says Jeremy Choy, owner of Pattern Interactive, the company developing the park's technological features.

The Heritage Wall will function similar to a giant, moving Lite-Brite accessible by the public to express and discuss their collective history. Community members will be encouraged to create their own designs and submit them for display. Anyone from artists, to community organizations, to teachers will have access. This will keep the wall's content fresh and reflective of its community. In addition, the Upper Fort Garry website will act as a continually updated history resource for researchers. A smartphone application is being developed so visitors can participate in self-guided tours on their phones.

The goal is for the park to reflect the latest understanding of the past while incorporating the future through the use of technology.

Says Hilderman, “The fort site is a catalyst to talk about history. The history of Manitoba, the history of Western Canada, and the history of Canada itself.”