That time Winnipeg closed Portage and Main to pedestrians

A heated pedestrian underpass opened at Winnipeg's windy intersection in February 1979, but some residents kept crossing on the frozen streets above.

Almost 40 years later, Winnipeggers voted on whether to reverse the decision

Portage and Main closed to pedestrians

45 years ago
Duration 2:06
Featured VideoA pedestrian underpass opens at Winnipeg's windy intersection in 1979, but residents stay on the snowy streets above.

Portage and Main in Winnipeg may be the most famous intersection in Canada.

People wearing red form a maple leaf at Portage and Main, seen from above
Winnipeggers celebrated Canada's 150th birthday by forming a "Living Leaf" at the intersection of Portage and Main on July 1, 2017. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Despite being closed to foot traffic, the historic intersection is a natural place for Winnipeggers to gravitate when there's something to celebrate — like the return of a National Hockey League team, in 2011, or the 150th anniversary of Confederation, in 2017.   

On Oct. 24, 2018, city voters got a chance to decide its fate.

The question: take down the barricades that have blocked pedestrians from crossing the intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street for almost 40 years? Or leave them up and continue to make people go underground to get across?

Ultimately, they decided to keep the intersection unchanged. 

In the spring of 2023, the intersection was in the news again. According to CBC Radio's As It Happens, it will "undergo a multimillion-dollar revitalization to repair a leaky membrane that allows surface runoff to damage the underground pedestrian concourse."

And one resident of the city who worked at the intersection told CBC she wanted to "take a jackhammer" to remove a set of concrete barricades at the intersection that prevented pedestrians from crossing at surface level.

The Portage and Main technique

The underground concourse was opened on Feb. 23, 1979. The barriers were in place by then, but the intersection wasn't yet closed to pedestrians, as CBC reporter Terry Matte discovered. 

Crowd of people celebrate on street
Winnipeg NHL supporters shut down Winnipeg's largest intersection, Portage & Main, late Tuesday night, May 31, 2011 after it was confirmed that the Atlanta Thrashers NHL hockey team would be moving to Winnipeg. (David Lipnowski/Canadian Press)

"You will notice many people have learned the Portage and Main technique," said Matte. "The quicker you can get across, the less chance you will freeze to death before you get to the other side." 

Sure enough, most pedestrians could be seen moving at a half-run across Main Street.

But many of those on foot had a good reason to stay outside to traverse Portage and Main.

"I didn't know it was open!" said one woman.

When Matte pointed out the entrance, she was unmoved.

"It's kind of far," she said. "I think I'll just run across."

Worth a chance

Another pedestrian was willing to give it a try after Matte's advice.

People at street signs reading "Burton Cummings Portage and Main"
Burton Cummings (in white suit) poses with musicians at Portage and Main for his 1979 CBC-TV Superspecial of the same name. (Superspecial/CBC Archives)

"I didn't know where the entrance was," said a man holding onto his ears despite wearing a hat. "I think I'll take a chance and go through it." 

The $7-million concourse under Portage and Main was attached to an underground mall, and the longer-term plan was to join many buildings downtown with below-ground tunnels or second-storey skywalks.

City council supported the decision to push pedestrians underground because it would improve traffic flow for motor vehicles and be safer for people on foot.

Old black and white photo of horses pulling wagons
Corner of Portage Avenue & Main Street, Winnipeg, 1872 (National Archives of Canada/PA-066785)

But according to the Globe and Mail, an opposition group called Right to Walk vehemently objected to the barriers because of the undue burden they placed on the elderly and people using wheelchairs.

Ramps not an option

There were elevators at just two corners of the intersection. Otherwise the options for getting underground involved stairs and escalators.

Concourse opponents routinely jumped the barricades, risking a fine of $12.25.   

"After 116 years, the city has finally decided that Portage and Main is fine for cars, but it's no fit place for human beings," concluded Matte. 

Portage and Main in 1958

4 years ago
Duration 1:33
Featured VideoStanley Burke reports on the 1958 Manitoba election while standing at the corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg.

In 1958, the intersection made a natural backdrop for reporter Stanley Burke as he summed up the provincial Manitoba election. Pedestrians could be seen crossing the intersection as cars, trucks and trolley buses took their turns.

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