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‘It’s a time to reflect’: How Winnipeg marked the 150th anniverary of its first city council meeting

Friday marked a very special milestone at Winnipeg City Hall – the 150th anniversary of the city’s first council meeting.

A special event to commemorate the occasion was held at city hall, bringing together current and former elected city officials, Indigenous leaders, community heads and dignitaries.

“It’s a time to reflect, to reflect upon our shared stories with gratitude and to look ahead to our shared future with hope,” Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said in a speech at the event.

The occasion had former city councillors contemplating the past.

“It’s brought back some visions of things I’m not too happy about and some things I realized we did that were pretty darn good,” said Mike O’Shaughnessy, who represented the Old Kildonan ward on an off from 1974 until 2010.

Meantime, current city councillor Sherri Rollins looked to the future and the change to come.

“I want to make sure we’re getting to gender parity within city hall and we have for decades in 150 years.”

The event is part of a larger celebration of Winnipeg’s 150th birthday. The city unveiled a special graphic aimed at representing the city as it is today while acknowledging its Indigenous roots.

Mayor Gillingham says there are more celebrations in the works that will happen throughout the year.

‘Basically just a village’

The Winnipeg that formed 150 years ago after filing its proposal to become a city in December of 1873 looked very different than the one that stands today.

“It was basically just a little village – mostly wooden buildings, a few brick buildings, some businesses,” said Roland Sawatzky, Manitoba Museum’s curator.

“Not that much going on except for some trade, a saloon and a new church, but pretty small. But they had ideas that they were going to grow.”

City of Winnipeg archivist and records manager Conrad Krahn says at that time, the city was a fraction of the size it is today.

“The boundaries were very small. It was a four- or five-square-kilometre area, which is what the City of Winnipeg was at that time.”

Winnipeg’s first council included the inaugural mayor Francis Evans Cornish and 12 councillors representing four wards.

They were elected during Winnipeg’s first civic election. Its rigid eligibility rules dictated that only 398 people, or about 20 per cent of the population, were able to cast ballots.

After all the votes were counted and the officials proclaimed, Winnipeg city council sat for its first meeting on Jan. 19, 1874.

Sawatzky says in the 150 years since, the city has marked several formative milestones, including the Winnipeg General Strike and prior to that, the arrival of the railroad in the early 1880s.

“That brought a lot of new people in, and it really changed the face of the city. It grew very quickly, and there were a lot of social changes, as well. After that, you had this giant economic expansion for the next 20, 30 years.”

– With files from CTV’s Joseph Bernacki and Daniel Halmarson

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