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Norway House: the Northwest Crossroads

For the week of Monday February 5, 2007

On February 9, 1899, the temperature at Norway House plunged to minus 52.8°C, a Manitoba provincial record that still stands. Norway House was built in the winter of 1814-15 just north of Lake Winnipeg.

Aerial View of Norway House, 1925
© Archives of Manitoba (MG-13140)

The few available records show that the winters then were long, with gale force winds and so much fallen snow that the workers could not find the trees that they had felled the previous day.

Despite its isolation and harsh climate, Norway House became an important Hudson’s Bay Company fort and trading post on the route between the Red River settlement in the south and York Factory on Hudson Bay. It acted as a distribution point for trade goods (flour, salt pork, sugar, tea, axes, knives, and guns), mail and furs, and was a well-known York boat construction site.

Norway House on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, ca.1882. (Paul Kane)
© Stark Museum of Art
Settlers, voyageurs, HBC employees and First Nations peoples all passed through Norway House, each leaving a unique stamp on Canadian history. In the 1830s James Evans, a Methodist minister, developed the Cree syllabic characters while working at Norway Bay. His resourcefulness allowed the Cree peoples to communicate via a written language that is still in use today. In 1846, the painter Paul Kane – a founding father of Canadian art – spent several weeks painting at Norway House. His work, especially his record of the HBC forts, is particularly important in the study of 19th-century Canada. Finally, in 1875 the Government of Canada and the Saulteaux and Swampy Cree Nations signed Treaty No. 5 at Norway House.

York boat at Norway House (E.L. Bruce, 1919)
© Natural Resources Canada
The area was deeply involved in the construction of the sturdy York boat. From 1746 into the 1870s – when trains and steam-propelled river vessels replaced them – these workhorse bateaux plied the rivers and lakes of present day Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, carrying supplies to settlers and company depots, and furs back to Hudson Bay. Capable of carrying three tonnes of cargo, they were stable, swift, remarkably easy to portage, and their crews of seven to nine men could row, sail or pole the boat depending on the weather. York boats remain an enduring symbol of Western Canadian history.

For its diverse role in the history of Canada’s west as meeting place, Hudson’s Bay Company fort, site of the origin of the Cree Syllabic System, and first signing of Treaty No. 5, Norway House was designated a National Historic Site in 1932. Painter Paul Kane was designated a National Historic Person in 1937.


 

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