The boundaries of the early city of Winnipeg were the Assiniboine River to the south, Maryland Street on the west, the Red River on the east and just slightly north of present day Selkirk Avenue. With the arrival of the railway in the mid 1880’s the city’s population swelled and a period of growth ensued.
The same railway that brought growth, optimism and employment to the city of Winnipeg also established the impenetrable barrier to the north of the city. Street level mainline crossings could often be blocked for hours. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that an underpass was constructed to allow the easy passage of vehicles and pedestrians to proceed north and southbound. This railway also established a boundary that separated the social, economic and religious communities.
Early residents of Winnipeg were very much British in origin and Protestant in their religion having emigrated from Ontario upon Manitoba’s entry into confederation in 1870. This wealthy and powerful group were not inclined to be tolerant of different cultural practices and religious beliefs. Yet they understood that to maintain the growth and prosperity that the railway brought, the many thousands of jobs would need to be filled through immigration.
Manitoba’s immigration started small with the arrival of Mennonites and Icelanders who settled in rural areas of the province in the 1870’s. The implementation of a federal government policy to recruit immigrants from eastern and central Europe in 1896 through the offer of free land and the chance to start a new life in a free society, initiated the wave of settlers to the west. A shortage of land, oppression and a lack of religious freedom in their native lands further spurred the immigration to Canada.
While many of the new arrivals did take advantage of the free land offer and settle in rural Manitoba, a great number of immigrants including Jews, Poles and Ukrainians opted to live in Winnipeg and obtain employment working for the Canadian Pacific Railway as well as in manufacturing and construction. These ethnic groups tended to find housing in the inexpensive North End.
By 1901 38% of Winnipeg’s residents were foreign born, by the beginning of World War One, 55% percent of the population was foreign born. New arrivals often came to Winnipeg with few possessions and little money and tended to congregate close to their fellow countrymen and places of work which in this case was predominantly the North End.
Despite the hardships; low incomes and crowded living conditions, residents of the North End did flourish and this emergence of a large and distinctive population caused the development of commercial districts, particularly along Selkirk Avenue. Stores operated by the representative ethnic groups were offering food and clothing familiar to their European immigrant customers and many were often able to communicate in several languages.
Beginning in the 1950’s small corner grocery stores were located on street corners throughout residential areas with many intersections having more than one store. Families that owned these stores quite often lived in the housing behind or above them. In addition to canned and boxed goods many stores offered a butcher counter, on- premise made specialty items like sausages and featured home delivery. Competition was often fierce and the emergence of large grocery supermarkets with an extensive product offering was always a threat to the smaller operator.
As families financial positions improved through employment or entrepreneurship, many were able to move from rented accommodations to their own homes. Newer and larger homes north of Redwood Avenue became their destination of choice while more recent immigrants occupied their previous digs. Post World War Two optimism and financial security allowed the move for many families to housing in the newly developed suburbs. Affluence brought mobility through car ownership and the provision of streetcars and trolley buses expanded the ability to travel wherever roads were constructed.
The post WW 2 period of economic growth was felt in the North End as elsewhere with the ability to work, live and shop within the confines of one’s own community. This period also brought about the move from the North End by the 2nd and 3rd generation of the original European immigrants. The benefits of higher education and developing careers fulfilled the original dreams of the parents and grandparents that motivated the move from Europe all those decades earlier.