Discovering Manitoba

Songs on the Riverbank

Come to Fort Gibraltar to see the humble beginnings of our mighty Manitoba. P’tis Bert spends most of his time with a drawknife, somewhere between stages of his latest woodworking project. Last year, that project was a workbench. This year, he’s rebuilding the prison door and seems happy to do it. Since leaving Montreal, P’tis Bert has crisscrossed the country several times with his own weight in fur to carry. He likes it in Fort Gibraltar and refuses to chance another season on the rivers. The pace of life here, he says, is better for the back.

Tucked deep within the heart of old St. Boniface, Fort Gibraltar seems somewhat at odds with the Winning skyline. A reconstruction of the 1810 Northwest Company Trading Post, the fort sits on the banks of the Red River across from the downtown.

Typically, one associates the activities in Whittier Park and Fort Gibraltar with the Festival du Voyageur, held every February. However, for the past three summers, Colin Mackie and his staff of historical interpreters have been re-enacting a fascinating time in Manitoba’s history. Specifically, the period 1812 to 1816, which saw the first permanent settlement of landed Europeans and the founding of the Metis people in the Winnipeg region.

Inside the fort, costumed interpreters portray the everyday life of fur traders during this time. Colin and his staff also provide a wealth of historical anecdotes and educational programming. They are your singing, storytelling, gruff guides to the time.

“We want to tell the story of Manitoba, from voyageurs paddling in their brigades, to the cultures of the plains. I want people to buy into the past, touch the furs and interact with a bunch of pretty interesting characters,” says Colin.

Inside the fort, visitors are given tours of the sales shop, the winterer’s cabin, the storage warehouse, the workshop and the blacksmith shop. Hundreds of historical replicas from the weigh scales to the authentic trade goods in the sales shop, offer glimpses into the simple, practical – difficult – way of life. Tea in bricks, beaver pelts and good-natured ‘joie de vivre’ are all part of the experience at Fort Gib.

If you’re lucky, you came around lunchtime. Over in the winterers’ cabin, P’tis Gus has just completed his latest cast-iron gastronomic experiment. Today, it’s a roasted chicken and bread pudding. It smells incredible. Yesterday, it was duck. And while there’s seldom enough to go around, he’s been known to ask guests to sample the dessert. “We pride ourselves on personal contact with each and every visitor,” says Colin, the Heritage Programs Manager for the Fort.

“Our staff is excellent at engaging you in whatever facet of the fur trade you find most intriguing. From the politics at the Red River Settlement, to the pastimes of voyageurs, we really want to present a complete picture of what life was like at any given moment. We’ll even teach you to throw hatchets.”

P’tis Bert talks a lot about his family. He sings songs he learned back home as the wood shavings fall at his feet. Every once in a while, he will pause in mid-sentence to inspect his drawknife and digress about the trouble he has keeping it sharp. The same goes for his chisels. It’s clear he’s in no hurry. He’s in more of a talking mood and the prison door isn’t going anywhere. So long as the clerk doesn’t spy him chatting away and threaten to send him back on the York boat brigade, all is well – until those Hudson’s Bay men come nosing around, that is.

If you’ve been to the Festival du Voyageur, you know how to get to Fort Gibraltar. A short distance from St. Boniface Cathedral and located at the very end of St. Joseph Street in Whittier Park, St. Boniface, the Fort is open all summer long; Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Friday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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