The Garden of Eden Takes Many Forms in our Minds and in our Hearts: Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg

September 17, 2020

Clemence Marcastel

This contribution from Mary Wiens is part of Park People’s A Day at the Park series, exploring how city parks shape us. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the summer months.

For me, one of those eternal gardens came in the form of Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park. Growing up on a farm in Manitoba, wide-open spaces were as natural to me as breathing. But the man-made landscapes of plowed and tended fields were designed for work.

Assiniboine Park – in Winnipeg, an hour away by car – was another matter. The sweeping swathes of manicured grass and gently curving roads were designed for pleasure – lending dignity and grandeur to family outings, a crowd which included my grandfather, plenty of cousins, uncles and aunts. The aunts brought blankets and picnic baskets filled with egg salad sandwiches, rhubarb Platz, thermoses of coffee and mason jars of lemonade, wrapped in towels to keep them cold.

The one hour drive to the city after the Sunday morning church service must have been carefully planned by our collective mothers. I don’t remember the planning. What I do remember is the expanse of cut grass when we arrived at the park and the view of the Pavilion at the far end. The Pavilion. Even the word was magical – all other pavilions mere shadows of that glorious first one at Assiniboine Park. It was built in 1930, just before the Depression eliminated the possibility of more such grand public gestures.

Mary Wiens’s mother in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg

Part Tudor cottage, part pavilion, its steeply pitched gables, exposed timbers and formal pergolas epitomizi the dignified playfulness of Assiniboine Park. Equally magical was the park’s zoo. The zoo was built in 1904 to showcase a handful of native animals, and expanded over the years so that by the 1960s when I visited as a child, there was a monkey house, a tropical house and dozens of enclosures spread across 80 acres. But all the other animals — ducks, porcupines, gazelles, buffalo, and monkeys — were mere warm-up acts to the true stars — the polar bears. The enclosure for polar bears, the zoo’s most renowned feature, was built in 1967.


Wyman Laliberte, Assiniboine Park (1967)

Unveiled in that optimistic Centennial year, it showcased massive polar bears splashing and diving in groovy, water-filled pools painted a brilliant white. Has my imagination added fictitious turquoise to the mix? The bears’ wet coats, gleaming under the blue prairie skies, together with the turquoise pools, made it seem as though the bears, like us, had travelled from a very different landscape for a suburban vacation – the bears as sleekly mid-century modern as their surroundings – their streamlined bodies merging smoothly into small heads and long pointed snouts.

On those golden summer Sundays, we finished with one last gathering around the picnic baskets, the ice cubes in the mason jars long since melted, before we were corralled into our respective fathers’ cars. We were farm families and the milking and chores at 6 couldn’t wait, so we left gazing through the rear windows at the park still glowing in the late afternoon sun. At 17, I left the farm to take my first job in Winnipeg. I lived in Wolseley, a neighbourhood with plenty of cheap apartments on the second floor of houses with fading painted exteriors. By bike, we were only 20 minutes away from Assiniboine Park, cycling past the stately homes and towering trees on Wellington Crescent.

In Winnipeg, where nothing seemed too expensive or forbidding, I began to stretch my cultural muscles. The first time I saw ballet was on a summer evening in Assiniboine Park, the Pavilion serving as a backdrop to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s free performances, attended by thousands of people every year.

Forty years later, I still see that ballet – Rodeo, a playful, contemporary work by choreographer Agnes de Mille, set to music by Aaron Copeland with dancers in cowboy boots and fringed jackets. Another performance of Rodeo was scheduled for the 2020 season – part of a retrospective to mark the company’s 80th anniversary season – cancelled because of COVID.

Today, I live in Toronto, only a few minutes’ walk from High Park in the city’s west end – the private gift, also from an earlier era, of Toronto’s philanthropist architect John Howard. I am lucky to have lived in the long, green shadows of not one, but two great parks. But it was Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park which taught me first, and many more generations of children before and after, to expect largesse, generosity and dignity in public spaces built with municipal funds – and to see summer pavilions as a wondrous architectural miracle.


About Mary Wiens

Mary Wiens is an award-winning journalist and producer who can be heard weekdays on CBC Radio One’s most listened-to morning show, Metro Morning, on 99.1 FM in Toronto.

Mary’s journalistic scope ranges from groundbreaking series on transit, such as “Joyless Commute” about the emotional strain of the daily commute, to a series exploring father absence called “Fathering Change: Strengthening the role of black fathers”.

Her feature stories have won numerous regional and national awards from RTDNA Canada – the Association of Electronic Journalists, as well as the international Gabriel award for Metro Morning’s series, “Stolen Children”, about Canada’s infamous residential school system.

Mary’s deep affection for Toronto is also expressed in her work as a community volunteer. As a founding member of Roncesvalles Renewed and RoncyWorks, she has been recognized with a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal for local projects that help build civic engagement.

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This contribution from Mary Wiens is part of Park People’s A Day at the Park series, exploring how city parks shape us. Be sure to check out all of the contributors throughout the summer months.

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