History, culture and food: a day in the Riel Region

Posted August 13, 2021 | Author Kit Muir

From start to finish, morning to night, the Riel Region delivers on history, culture, delicious eats and friendly faces. A day trip through the Riel Region will take you from the birthplace of Manitoba through its fur trade era to experiencing today’s rich Franco-Manitoban culture.

The unofficial “Riel Region” consists of three Winnipeg neighbourhoods – St. Norbert, St. Vital and St. Boniface. Each area has its own stories to tell and bits of culture to share. I spent one jam-packed day traveling through the region stopping to deepen my appreciation for Francophone history and culture in Manitoba thanks to recommendations and tours from Tourisme Riel. Follow along then explore for yourself! Allons-y!

A visit to Manitoba means travelling through Treaty 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Territory and through communities who are signatories to Treaties 6 and 10. It encompasses the original lands of the Anishinaabeg, Anish-Ininiwak, Dakota, Dene, Ininiwak and Nehethowuk and the homeland of the Métis. To learn more about Manitoba's Treaty areas, click here.

The birthplace of the province of Manitoba

If you’re at all familiar with the history of Manitoba, you likely know that St. Norbert is where many of the events that led to Manitoba entering into confederation started. It’s here that I also started my journey through the Riel Region.

One of the highlights of summer in St. Norbert is of course the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market. The once small market has grown much over the last few years and now has a permanent open-air building, in and around which many amazing vendors set up shop on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Wednesday evenings from 3 to 7 p.m.

The market has everything from potted plants to food staples to locally made wine and ciders. I started my day by filling my belly with a sweet and delicious crepe from Ker Breizh Crêperie, whose owner serves up authentic French crepes, both sweet and savoury.

On the south side of the St. Norbert Farmers Market, just beyond a grouping of picnic tables is the Tourisme Riel visitor centre. Here is where our first guided tour of the day begins.

The tour starts right there, outside the small log house, built in 1883, that now houses the visitor centre. Around us there are two other historic houses and an enclosed display that houses a real preserved ox, a Red River cart and a figure that represents Jeanne M. Perrault, who played an important role in the effort to preserve the buildings and historic monuments of St. Norbert.

In the centre of the courtyard, surrounded by the buildings is the stone cross – the La Barrière Monument. The original monument was made of wood and was erected not far from here to commemorate the Métis resistance in 1869 when surveyors from Eastern Canada came to the region to sell land on which Métis communities were already living.

The history of the land and of First Nations people who lived here long before colonization goes back much farther, but taking the Tourisme Riel tour in St. Norbert will take you through much of the history of the late 1800s. You’ll learn the role and impact of Louis Riel and Noël Ritchot in the region and see historic buildings (some now residential homes), a cemetery, a church and a small, intricately decorated open-air chapel tucked into the residential neighbourhood.

History is all around you in St. Norbert, if you just know where to look.

Take the tour to walk through history for yourself. The tour is hosted Wednesday to Saturday at 1 p.m. with extra departure times at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. The tour can be offered in both French and English upon request.

Pastries in the park

Before leaving the market, my mother and I made sure to grab a few things to eat when we arrived at our next destination – Bois des Esprits.

We found our way to the park from the west side of the Seine River, where John Bruce Road ends in a roundabout on the banks. Before exploring the forest and the surprises that lay within, we set up a picnic of locally made goodies from the St. Norbert farmers market – woodfired pizza and homemade lemonade from Red Ember, dried fruit from Sweet, Eh! and for dessert the choice of croissants from the Old Church Bakery or madeleines from Ker Breizh.

To get to Bois des Esprits we had the pleasure of crossing one of the brightly painted bridges that are part of the Cool Streets Winnipeg program. This particular one features various games painted onto the cement. Just a block past the bridge is the entrance to Bois des Esprits, a narrow path, tucked between two homes, leading down to the river bank.

Entering the woods is like being transported into a fairytale. Let your ears and eyes wander as you walk through the trees. You’ll hear some birds chirping and woodpeckers knocking for food. Blended into the trees, if you’re looking closely enough, you’ll see intricate carvings that make the dead trees come to life. Bois des Esprits means spirit woods, and once you’ve seen how the trees take on a new life after death, the name makes so much sense.

The trail through the woods stretches 2 kms along the Seine River but not far into the walk from the north you can see the iconic Spirit Tree. Even if you can only hike so far, it’s worth it to see this magnificent piece of art that combines nature and humanity so beautifully.

There are also a few geocaches hidden away in the woods if you want to take on an extra challenge on your journey.

In the heart of St. Boniface

The third neighbourhood of the Riel Region offers up more history and more great food. On my way to the Tourisme Riel office on Provencher Blvd for my next walking tour, I make a quick stop at Jardins St. Léon for a quick to-go meal. If my day was coming to an end I may also buy the local veggies, fruits, breads and meats that are sold here too, but for now I just need a small bit of sustenance.

As a sweet accompaniment, I grab a smoothie from the Monkey Bar once I arrive in St. Boniface. The Monkey Bar and Ker Breizh creperie are set up in a seasonal spot on the Esplanade Riel walking bridge, next to the Tourisme Riel seasonal kiosk.

Once my stomach is once again filled with delicious food, it’s time for the tour to begin.

The walking tour of St. Boniface covers sites of current and past cultural significance. This includes the modern sculpture garden just outside the historic Hôtel de Ville. The collection of sculptures come from artists across Canada as well as from St. Boniface itself.

The tour also includes stops at the Saint-Boniface Cathedral, where the ruins of the old cathedral stand tall in front of the current, more modern building (the 5th cathedral to be built at that spot), Louis Riel’s tombstone, the Université de Saint-Boniface and a couple statues of Louis Riel.

The hour and a half tour is offered every day at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. in English or French upon request.

The final stop of the day is a relaxing one at Patio 340. This pop up bar is the perfect place to spend an evening after a day of adventure. The bar is right beside the Centre Culturel Franco-manitobain and serves food from Stella’s restaurant. It offers a wide range of brews to choose from, if you’re so inclined, including four new beers from the local La Shoppe Brewery – La Saint-B Witbier, Caddy Pale Ale, Night Owl Stout and Sock Hop IPA. If you’re here on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday you can also enjoy a variety of musical and cultural performances and activities including wine tastings, poetry slams, comedy shows and live DJ and band performances.

Cheers to the Riel Region and all it has to offer!

Travel Manitoba staff was hosted by Tourisme Riel, who did not review nor approve this story.

Close-up of girl's face on a chilly Winnipeg winter day with fur hood and scarf.

About The Author

Hi! I'm Kit, a Franco-Manitobaine from the Interlake and a champion of the phrase "there's no place like home." If you see me out exploring the province, say hi! Or reach out at kmuir@travelmanitoba.com.

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