Winnipeg’s Lost Creeks
The creeks that once criss-crossed this city can teach us about living together with nature
By Marnie Klassen, A Rocha Manitoba Communications and Admin Assistant
March 3, 2023
Walking around Winnipeg, I often catch myself thinking, wow, this place is so flat. As I’ve gotten to know the city, however, I’ve found dips in the road, seen puddles where they don’t seem to belong, and heard about sinking buildings.
These are artifacts of Winnipeg’s lost creeks.
200 years ago, Winnipeg was criss-crossed by 36 creeks, streams, and coulees – now there are 9. Buried beneath our city are these creeks, bits popping up now and again (like Bunn’s Creek, a shortened version of its former self, or Omand’s Creek, now straightened).
Throughout Lent, A Rocha Manitoba is leading weekly walks along the routes of some of these lost creeks, lamenting the loss of these natural and beautiful waterways.
Winnipeg was built at the confluence of two rivers. This wasn’t a great decision for infrastructure, but it was for trade. Winnipeg was a hub of the fur trade. The Forks (where the Assiniboine and Red rivers meet in the centre of the city) was an important meeting place and trading ground for Indigenous peoples for a long time before settlers arrived and began to use the area for trading furs.
The early days of settlement were dry years – good for building, with little concern about flooding. By the 1870s and 80s, wet years had arrived and the ramifications of building on and around marshlands, coulees, rivers, and streams were becoming apparent. Buildings began to sink (including the old city hall) and roadways and buildings flooded.
Over the coming decades, most of the 36 creeks around the city were filled in or rerouted through storm sewers. Winnipeg had become one of the fastest growing cities in North America, and creeks were seen as an impediment to development. There were no laws at the time to protect the natural environment, so the environment was changed to fit the needs of the city.
In more recent years, as flooding has continued to be an issue due to the filling in of the creeks, the city has built culverts to deal with flooding. This is the “expense of trying to replace what was already there.”*
As I’ve pondered this history, my instinct has been to yearn for a time when this land I know as Winnipeg was criss-crossed with waterways. But there is a danger here – William Cronon, in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” says that we see wilderness, or nature as something completely separate from the human world. In reality, the natural world has long involved humans – in Canada, we know that Indigenous peoples have been living in harmony with creation for generations. The idea of wilderness is a human creation, according to Cronon – part of the problem rather than the solution in humanity’s relationship to the natural world.
Thinking of wilderness as pristine is dangerous – it allows us to think of it as empty, devoid of human influence. But if we approach it with curiosity and wonder, open to the idea that nature is something we are a part of, we can find beauty.
Think of things like flowers that grow in sidewalk cracks, or fresh snow drifts across dirty roads, or the dips in sidewalks that signify where a creek once was.
I find this immensely hopeful! The theologian Philip Hefner suggests that we are co-creators with God:
“I recommend that we think of the human being as the created co-creator… Because we are created, we are reminded that we are dependent creatures… we depend on the creative grace of God. Yet, we are also creators… We participate with God in the ongoing creative process.”**
Winnipeg may be down to 9 creeks – but we know that as ‘created co-creators’ with God, we can continue to make the world a better place, continue to live in harmony with nature, even in an urban environment.
My hope is that learning the history of Winnipeg’s ghost creeks will inspire us to do better in the future, to build cities and neighbourhoods that work with nature, rather than quashing it.
*As quoted in “Ghost creeks: Winnipeg buried many waterways that could have changed city’s shape” by Darren Bernhardt, CBC. This article inspired this blogpost! Thank you to Bernhardt.
**As quoted in “CO-CREATION SPIRITUALITY: Participating in God’s Ongoing Work of Creation through Spiritual Direction and the Spiritual Exercises” by Gem Yecla, 2019, published in The Way
Featured photo: Robert Lindsell, Kildonan Park