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Winnipeg community members prevent overpass construction, 1979-1981
Canadian inner-city neighbourhoods are often a passing thought to political figures and city residents, especially when their demolition means new development and million dollar deals. One such case was that of the decision to build an overpass in Winnipeg’s inner-city. Winnipeg’s Executive Policy Committee (EPC), along with Mayor Robert Steen, made the decision to build the overpass in the summer of 1978 without any community consultation and took the proposal straight to a City Council meeting (in which it was approved within five days).
In theory their proposition would benefit many Winnipeggers. The EPC was to extend two main inner-city streets, Sherbrook and Furby Street, to the south of the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks in order to build a $12.5 million overpass that would connect the two streets with McGregor Street. However, the construction of the overpass would involve the demolition of community buildings, apartment blocks, and houses located in both areas. Adding insult to injury many of the buildings had been recently renovated after $3 million had been provided to the community as part of an urban renewal program.
Although it seemed a quick decision, seeds were sewn for the overpass over a century earlier when the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) tracks were routed through Winnipeg’s inner-city with civic leaders’ incentive for free land and tax exemptions. The railway was a positive for the city in terms of an economic boost, but many neighbourhoods were subjected to the unpleasant effects that the railway, and other businesses that settled nearby, brought with it. These areas became unsavory, and created a physical and social divide between ‘railway’ residents and other middle- and upper-class residents of the city.
Today, these railway communities remain in similar condition due to stunted development as a result of the tracks. Rather than moving the rail yards, city officials merely built around them into more ‘desirable’ neighbourhoods. Not only do these areas remain in physical and social isolation, but the increase in motor vehicles in the 1950s led to a push for improved transportation throughout the city, including a freeway proposed in the 1960s. The issue was debated for over ten years and although Winnipeg would gain economic recognition, local consequences would ensue.
After the proposal of the overpass in late 1978 many community members became concerned with the effects it would have in their communities. Rossbrook House was a prominent community centre in Winnipeg’s north end (one area that would be devastated by the construction) and through the leadership of its founder, Sister Geraldine MacNamara, overpass resistance began in early 1979, quickly gaining support from around the city. Also involved in the initial protest of the overpass was Vern Gray, a community development worker, and John Ashworth, chairman of the Centennial Neighbourhood Improvement Program, both of whom based their work near Sherbrook.
Gray and Ashworth canvassed the Sherbrook community for their reactions to the news of the overpass, often receiving apathetic responses. However, they continued their campaign, publishing leaflets which they dropped at every house and announcing their campaign to local radio stations. Together, Gray, Ashworth and MacNamara organized a public meeting.
While Gray and Ashworth canvassed the Sherbrook area, MacNamara partnered with those in the McGregor community who would be directly affected by the construction of the overpass, including James Strachen, chaplain of the Health Sciences Centre (the largest medical centre in the province). As the overpass would destroy many parts of the neighbourhood, the safety of over 5000 patients and employees was put in jeopardy. The first community meeting was held on October 11, 1978; over 150 people came, over 90% of which were inner-city residents. At the end of the meeting participants formed an action committee.
The community meetings proved a key component to the campaign. Not long after they began, a number of community leaders formed the Inner City Committee for Rail Relocation (ICCRR). Many prominent leaders were involved in the formation of the committee including a member of the Legislative Assembly.
Because the decision to move forward with construction needed federal, provincial and civic funding, the ICCRR gained time to rally more citizens opposed to the overpass. They demanded public hearings. After being granted the right to speak on the issue, the campaign gained a tremendous number of supporters. The Federal Minister of Transport, Otto Lang, became an ally and delayed construction.
In early 1980 the federal government conducted a number of studies about the effects of the overpass, and in May 1980 Rossbrook House held another public hearing, during which they gained even more supporters due to the political leaders in attendance.
However, local government still wanted the project. Further action was needed and a petition was filed to delay the transfer of funds to the project. Arne Peltz, lawyer to the ICCRR, argued that there had not been sufficient time to consider objections to the overpass. However, the petition failed, and in a final attempt at action, Rossbrook House filed a federal notice of motion in which they requested the halting of the project.
In January of 1981 Justice C. Rhodes Smith gave the city legal permission to build the overpass. The ICCRR and its many supporters were crushed, but the city allowed for a final public meeting in order to relay the final plans for construction – it was to span two evenings. The turnout on the first evening was tremendous, and much more than the city counsel had expected. Over one hundred people showed up and although the meeting was not intended to be an open discussion, overpass opposers were granted the right to speak about the issue – their last attempt at stopping construction. The Deputy Mayor, Pearl McGonigal, relayed the city’s plan for construction and then turned the microphone over to the citizens of Winnipeg. There was such an overwhelming amount of those wanting to speak to the issue that the meetings were extended an extra two days.
Most spoke about their opposition to the overpass, and those present included CPR representatives, members of the Chamber of Commerce, local business owners and employees, community organizations, staff and students of surrounding schools and universities, nuns, inner-city residents, and other citizens concerned about the issue. Sister MacNamara closed the hearing by stating that the overpass would not only fail to solve transport issues, but would harm the community.
The City Council was shocked by the turnout, and opinions of Winnipeg citizens. Less than two weeks later the Council voted against the construction of the overpass. Although the greater agenda of the ICCRR, the relocation of the railway tracks, was unsuccessful, they had succeeded in saving an at-risk neighbourhood. Rossbrook House lives on today, and continues to support and fight for the rights of its inner-city community and citizens.