Friday, January 27, 2023

The Growth of Winnipeg Suburbs - Rooster Town

  Print 4 & 5: The Growth of Winnipeg Suburbs                          (On exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until May 21, 2023).

In prints four and five (see next post), I portray the Métis settlement of Rooster Town side by side with the early ‘rurban’ Mennonite settlement in North Kildonan. It struck me how similar the living conditions and poverty appear to have been in both communities. However, the narratives surrounding the settlements differ dramatically. While the inhabitants of rooster town are repeatedly stigmatized and blamed for their own poverty, the Mennonite settlers are praised for their achievements despite adversity. I use the image of the same simple house in both prints, with the more affluent neighbourhoods either encroaching or being within an easy distance. 

For those of you who haven't heard of Rooster Town just briefly: it was a Métis settlement often referred to as a shanty town on the southern fringes of Winnipeg from around 1900-1959, when it was demolished to make way for Grant Park mall and school.

Print 4: The Growth of Winnipeg Suburbs - Roostertown

Heard of Rooster Town? ... It's Our 'Lost Suburb'

In this print you can see a digitally printed map of the Rooster Town households in 1951, mostly located between Grant and Hector Avenue.

The Winnipeg Tribune printed an article on December 20, 1951: "... The people who live in [Rooster Town] are Métis ... Destitute, they threw up shacks on Canadian National Railways property ... The population of Rooster Town is small, but it presents one of the stickiest social problems in the Winnipeg area ... Children raised in the filth and squalor of Rooster Town are sent to the spanking new Rockwood School, 10 minutes away cross-country. [P]arents in other areas using Rockwood School are naturally worried about their children's health. “Whatever you do,” they warn, “don't touch the Rooster Town children. You might get a skin disease.”

On the same day (December 20, 1951), the Winnipeg Free Press, wrote: “This is Rooster Town. Water – that's all they want for Christmas. Folks in 'Rooster Town' get along on practically nothing, but they can't do without water. It's a tough problem. The pump that serves the 'community' is about a mile away ... The dilapidated shacks are scattered through the brush and in sharp contrast, just across the Canadian National railways main line, is the bright paint of the newly built-up area south of Corydon avenue. Because it's so hard to lug every drop of water a whole mile, cleanliness and sanitation in the 'town' aren't all they should be ... Result? Impetigo, scabies and other skin diseases, whooping cough, chicken-pox and so on ... They have no plumbing, no sewers and they're crowded into those little shacks and sleeping in some cases four to a bed.”

Eight years later (April 11, 1959), Free Press Staff Writer John Dafoe, writes: “Rooster Town Is Dying ... As the city moved south the Rooster Towners loaded up their scrapwood shacks and moved on, farther into the prairie. And as they moved, their place was taken by some of Winnipeg's most elegant homes. The worthless prairie on which the Rooster Towners squatted became the city's most expensive residential land … No one is sure where Rooster Town got its name. 'It's been called that as long was I can remember,' said [Gerald V. O'Brien, assistant director of the city's welfare department]. 'Maybe it's because a lot of them used to keep chickens. Even now, there are chickens running wild all through the bush. You turn them up everywhere you step.' By summer, Rooster Town will be gone.”

Almost 60 years later, Winnipeg Free Press Journalist Randy Turner re-evaluates this history on January 30, 2016: “... They were invisible then, they are invisible now... 'They were intensely poor,' said Evelyn Joy Peters, professor of urban geography at the University of Winnipeg, who specializes in Métis and First Nations people in city environments. 'They faced enormous prejudice. But they were trying to make a better future for their kids, which they did.' ... Consider the roots of Rooster Town. The original 'settlers' were Métis who first arrived on the outskirts of Winnipeg in the 1880s, Peters said. Many, if not all, had never received the land they'd been promised under the Manitoba Act ... so their goal was to find employment in the growing city, mostly seasonal jobs and hard labour... 

Rooster Town People were never welcome in Winnipeg to begin with, said retired University of Winnipeg history professor David Burley, who described the treatment of residents as 'municipal colonization.'...'Being Métis in the city through of the 19th and 20th centuries meant being subject to racism and even violence ... They ended up marginalizing them both physically and socially. They were pushed to the edge of the city or beyond town limits. And many of the kinds of services that Winnipeg residents of European background had just weren't available for them – sewers, water.' …

[Burley] told the story of a Métis woman, now in her 50s, who attended Rockwood. 'Her mother would scrub her children before sending them to school just so no one could ever possibly accuse them of being dirty. That was something that was a very important part of her childhood: the importance of being clean. Because being clean was the opposite of the stereotype many people had of Métis people.'”

For more information about Rooster Town I can highly recommend the book Rooster Town, by Evelyn Peters, Matthew Stock and Adrian Werner published in 2018. They point out that the majority of residents of Rooster Town were employed and not on welfare, some even paid property taxes on the land they lived.

In recent years, reappraisals of history have led to the public art commission of the Rooster Town Kettle by Métis artist Ian August and the renaming of an area park as Rooster Town park to commemorate the local history.

For digital access to the book please click here. 

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