For centuries, the Winnipeg area has been a place where Aboriginal people came together. Anishnaabe, Assiniboine, Sioux, and Cree peoples all used the Red and Assiniboine Rivers as important transportation routes. While there is little documentation of Aboriginal activities in the region that would become St Vital, it is likely that the region was used as a connecting place, given its close proximity to the Forks. It may also have been a site for hunting and gathering. There has also been evidence further along the Red River of maize farming, which may have also occurred historically in the St Vital area.
The first farming that we know of started in the 1820s when Metis settlers established farms on the land that would become St Vital. These Metis came to farm after the Hudson’s Bay Company and North West Company merged, which meant there were fewer jobs available in the fur trade. Agriculture was quickly established in St Vital, thanks to the rich soil along the river banks. Among early St Vital’s most notable residents was Louis Riel Sr (father to the Louis Riel of Manitoba history fame) who was known in the community as the Miller of the Seine.
For many years, St Vital was one of the Winnipeg region’s prime agricultural producers. It’s rich soil became a fertile home for market gardeners and dairies serving the burgeoning city of Winnipeg just down the road. Nevertheless, as populations grew, farmers were under pressure to subdivide their property to make way for new residential lots. Farmers resisted, but in 1913 a group of pro-development councilors won control of the municipal council. In short order, sewer and street construction had commenced and St Vital was on its way to become the urbanized centre we see today. Nevertheless, St Vital continued to be known for its dairies and market gardeners well into the twentieth century.
But that rich food history hasn’t disappeared entirely. St Vital is still home to much of the agricultural land that still exists in Winnipeg. Organizations like the St Vital Agricultural Society continue to celebrate the living heritage of food production. And St Vital continues to make history – starting, for example, Winnipeg’s first public orchard on the Bishop Grandin Greenway.
There have been a lot of changes over the past two hundred years when those first Metis settlers established farms on the banks of the Red River. And there will be many changes in St Vital yet to come. How can we be prepared to meet those changes? How can we make those changes in how we get and use our food positive for our community? The food assessment can help give us direction for the future, and provides a space for you to help shape what you want food to be like in St Vital in the future.
Pictures are from the St Vital Historical Society.