Exploring Manitoba’s French Canadian and Métis Heritage
by Karen Wall
On May 16, 2018 twenty-five Red River College Heritage Group members and their guests were treated to a walk back in time at the St. Boniface Museum and Cathedral. Under the able tutelage of museum guides Aiden and Julie-Anne, the group learned about the day-to-day life of the early French-Canadian settlers in western Canada, the Metis population that developed in our province, Louis Riel, voyageurs and the fur trade and the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the settling of the west.
The museum building was constructed between 1845 and 1851 as the Grey Nuns Convent. As a mission house, it provided facilities for the Grey Nuns’ various works of education and charity that included caring for the aged and orphans, treating the sick and educating children. It is the oldest building in Winnipeg.
The group was intrigued with the design of the Red River cart and its particular structure built to deal with the unique aspects of prairie geography. The heaviness and warmth of bison hides helped the group envision how people stayed warm during the cold prairie winters in the 19th century. Examining looms and trying our hand at carding wool made it evident that you needed muscle to survive in this land in the 19th century as well!
In the replica of a 19th century farmhouse kitchen the group was shown the tools for separating cream from milk and making butter. Most would agree that the most fascinating item we discovered in the kitchen was the mixture used in the 19th century to protect those working in the fields from mosquitoes… a unique combination of bear fat and skunk pee… the smell alone would keep the mosquitoes at bay… and most people!
The farmhouse bedroom with its straw mattress, washstand and chamber pot brought back memories for some in the group of visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s house in childhood. Dumping the chamber pot was certainly not one of the sought after tasks in the 19th century. The youngest child, by virtue of their lack of seniority, usually had the dubious distinction of being responsible for that task.
Guide Aiden told the group about Louis Riel and the role of the voyageurs in the development of the Metis nation, as well as showing us how to tie a traditional Metis sash.
The second half of the tour was a visit to St. Boniface Cathedral. The group learned that the first church on the cathedral site was founded by Father Provencher, a priest and future bishop. Father Provencher ordered the church’s construction in 1818 in the form of a small log chapel. In 1832 Provencher, now a bishop, built the first cathedral, but it was destroyed by fire in 1860. In 1862, Bishop Tache built the first stone cathedral.
By 1900, St. Boniface was the fifth largest city in the West and needed a larger place of worship. Monsignor Langevin commissioned the building of a new one. In 1906 Monsignor Langevin dedicated the new St. Boniface Cathedral, which became one of the most imposing churches in Western Canada. Unfortunately in 1968 the 1906 cathedral was damaged by fire and many unique features were destroyed. Only the facade, sacristy, and walls of the old cathedral, which could hold 2000 people, remained after the fire. In 1972, a new smaller cathedral was built behind the 1906 façade, and that is the structure that remains today.
The group was especially intrigued by the way the new cathedral was built behind the ruins of the old one.
The group also commented on the amazing modern stained glass windows showing the Stations of the Cross. These modern stained glass windows are quite unique in that, unlike traditional stained glass windows, you can see out the windows to the cathedral grounds very clearly.
The gravesite of Manitoba founder, Louis Riel, in the cathedral cemetery was another significant aspect of that part of the group tour.
All in attendance agreed that the whole museum and cathedral event was extremely intriguing and interesting, and were especially thankful for the knowledgeable and insightful support of Aiden and Julie-Anne, our tour guides.
Lunch at the Resto Gare Restaurant
In keeping with our French-Canadian/Metis theme, the group ended the day with a delicious luncheon at the French restaurant, Resto Gare.
The group of 25 had the pleasure of being seated in the restaurant’s train car. Such traditional French fare as French onion soup, poutine, quiches and seafood crepes were devoured with gusto. The food was absolutely delicious and the service was warm, friendly and efficient. Everyone agreed that Resto Gare was a place they would recommend to friends.
All in all… a wonderful outing and an enjoyable day!