Monday, 13 April 2009

Victoria Park Remains Contested Territory

Victoria Park Remains Contested Territory

Ninety years ago, the competition between public rights and private property erupted into the 1919 General Strike, when the trades unions confronted employers over their right to bargain collectively for wages. While the face of this competition has changed over the decades and today it is not nearly as climactic, the opposing forces are still competing over Victoria Park.

Very likely, most Winnipeggers don't even know where Victoria Park was located. The Park was one of Winnipeg's three major parks, bought in 1893 and designed as meeting places for Winnipeg's rapidly growing working families. It is where a new condominium development is now being constructed on Waterfront Drive, between Amy, James, and Pacific Streets.

It became a significant meeting point during the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, as the Labour Temple located two blocks west on James Street was too small to hold the crowds that came out to take part in this dramatic event. This is where the Strikers met every day to get reports on negotiations with the City and to plan the day's events.

After the Strike, City Council sold the this plot of land to Winnipeg Hydro to build a steam heating plant - an act that can only be seen as official revenge. The steam plant was decommissioned in 1990 and demolished a few years later. Then City Council approved the plan to build a condominium complex on the land in 2004, sealing its fate - the land would never be used for public purposes again.

Last year, a small group of labour and community individuals under the auspices of the Winnipeg Labour Council responded to a call from the City of Winnipeg for "expressions of interest" to develop the area around the Alexander Docks, immediately to the east of where Victoria Park was. The group offered the City a way to retain the historical significance of the area.

They proposed a commemorative monument for the area around the Docks, they called "A Place to Rendezvous and Remember". The proposal was for a virtual museum, commemorative band shell and amphitheatre, café, parking area and landscaping that would extend Juba Park up to the Scots monument. Their efforts followed a City Planning exercise for North Main in 1997 that recommended a commemoration of the 1919 Strike and the allocation of funds to develop the Park as a historic site.

The 2008 proposal was encouraged by officials in the Planning and Property Development Department, who then rejected all proposals at the last moment. Another proposal to build a river ecology interpretive centre and office building was also initially encouraged and then rejected.  Both proposals were made to the Standing Policy Committee on Property Development in March last year, but were again rejected.

Instead, Centre Venture was instructed to try and to get the two competing proponents to merge their proposals. The two groups made efforts to do so and were prepared to work together towards a modified proposal that would integrate both historical and ecological themes. However it seems that officials were really not interested in either of these proposals, and were actively courting another potential partner with a proposal that had not participated in the call for Expressions of Interest. This third party and proposal had a more commercial concept in mind for the area and one that could therefore generate more revenue than the other two proposals.

Senator Rod Zimmer and another unnamed group came forward with a plan for a $10 million restaurant and banquet hall development for the Docks area. However, by December of last year he was unable to secure the financing required and lost the option on the land. Instead of coming back to the two parties who had sound ideas for the land, City Council once again announced they were looking for private sector development partners.

Today Victoria Park exists at It is a virtual Park, but the internet site is trying to be what the original park was for the people of Winnipeg - a place for people to meet and exchange views. The site is being maintained by people who believe it is important to have public places to exhibit a people's history, to remember the contribution of common working people to the development of this city, and to be able to express their views and insights about what is happening in the city and in the world around them.

The fact that the Park is not a physical location is significant though, as it retains a place in the ongoing competition over land as a public versus private asset. Victoria Park is no longer a geographic part of Winnipeg, but it is a part of the competition between those who believe in retaining public access and control of property versus those who want to parcel out property to individual interests. Victoria Park may never be mentioned in City Hall, but it is present whenever elected and hired officials plan to sell off city property or when they propose private companies take over ownership of public infrastructure.

The thinking in City Hall today seems reminiscent of what guided the officials in 1919 - that private interests should lead public interests (ironically, it was other Winnipeg City Councils that pioneered the provision of many public services at the turn of the century - garbage collection, water, electricity and gas). The Mayor and most of the Councillors seems to think that private profit is a greater motivator and guarantor of public services, than city government under the watchful eye of elected officials. The current City regime has contracted out, sold off or given away assets of the City in the guise of seeking efficient and cost effective services. They have ignored offers of help from individuals and organizations who seek public benefit rather than private profit, and thus they may have been able to destroy Victoria Park, but they can not destroy the will of those seeking to protect the assets that should be kept public.

April  2009

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