New public washroom on Main Street hearkens back to Winnipeg's history of 'comfort stations'
Winnipeg built 5 free-standing public washrooms around downtown between 1907 and 1917
A nearly constructed public washroom at the corner of Winnipeg's Main Street and Henry Avenue, made of recycled shipping containers and featuring retractable walls, has a new and modern look.
But despite its contemporary design, its opening early in the new year will mark a return for the City of Winnipeg to the very old business of providing a place for people to do their business.
Between 1907 and 1917, the city built five free-standing public toilets — or comfort stations, as the city preferred to call them — staffed by 16 attendants.
Over the decades, infrastructure changes, funding cutbacks and negative public perception led them to close, one by one. The last city-operated public washroom in downtown Winnipeg shut down in 1979.
Damon Johnston, president of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, has watched the construction of the new facility from his office across the street.
The opening of the washroom will mark a milestone in a project he has promoted on and off since his time working for the city, starting in the late 1990s.
"I was one of the few Indigenous persons working in that department at any kind of a senior level at the time," Johnston said.
City officials asked him to work with a committee studying public access to washrooms in the downtown area, an issue of particular importance to the city's homeless population, a disproportionate number of whom are Indigenous.
"Some businesses were starting to put up signs restricting access to their washrooms to customers," Johnston said.
"And so we could foresee that probably the public access issue is going to continue to grow."
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At that time, only one free-standing public washroom remained in the downtown area, across from the Legislative Building in Memorial Park — but it didn't belong to the city.
The NDP government of Ed Schreyer built the bunker-like facility in 1973, over the objections of Winnipeg's mayor, Stephen Juba.
Juba complained that it would be used by those struggling with drug addictions and homeless people, and his administration tried to block its construction by refusing to issue a building permit.
Some, including Juba's former deputy mayor, Bernie Wolfe, celebrated when those washrooms were torn down in 2006.
"Having known Steve that well, he would've just said, 'It's no surprise. I told you so,' and he would've been right," Wolfe told CBC News at the time.
Others warned that it would leave many vulnerable Winnipeggers without a place to tend to their basic physical needs.
The problem with the Memorial Park washrooms wasn't the facilities themselves, but that they were unsupervised, Johnston said.
"Sometimes individuals struggle with mental health issues or addictions and they present more of a challenge," he said.
"You have a duty to citizens, when you create public access, that these facilities feel safe."
While Juba was hostile to the idea of providing public washrooms, earlier civic leaders saw them as a necessity.
"The call to have public washrooms in Winnipeg goes back to the 1880s," said Christian Cassidy, a Winnipeg history blogger who has researched the comfort stations.
A letter to the editor of the Manitoba Free Press in 1887 complained that Winnipeg didn't have the kinds of conveniences that other major world cities had at the time.
"I think partially, Winnipeg always tried to keep up with the Joneses," Cassidy said.
"These were folks that visited Toronto and London — places that had great public washroom facilities. And they would come back here and see that we had none."
Women played a major role in the push for public washrooms. Most of the easily accessible toilets were in men-only saloons.
Annual outbreaks of diseases like typhoid, sometimes referred to as Red River fever, pushed city officials to recognize the importance of public sanitation and plumbing.
The rise and fall of comfort stations
The first of the city's public toilets opened on Market Avenue, near city hall, in 1907. The toilets were below the street, with the street-level entrances built to resemble other public buildings like libraries, with red brick walls and gabled roofs.
It would take seven years and the election of Thomas Deacon as mayor in 1913 for the next phase of comfort station construction to begin.
"[Deacon] was a big water and waste guy and he became the political champion of public washrooms," Cassidy said.
However, the mayor faced opposition from business owners in the area where the city wanted to build the washrooms. A petition in 1914 said the comfort stations would "depreciate the value of their properties."
Nonetheless, the city went ahead with constructing separate men's and women's washrooms, which opened on Portage Avenue at Fort Street and Garry Street that year.
Despite the early opposition of some nearby businesses, initial reaction from the public was largely positive, Cassidy said — including from some store owners, who liked the fact public washrooms would allow shoppers to stay downtown longer.
Two more comfort stations opened in 1917 — one on Selkirk Avenue and another on Logan Avenue.
However, hostility toward the washrooms grew over time. Drivers disliked them because they were built jutting out into the street.
Funding cuts led to fewer staff to oversee them, leaving them more vulnerable to vandalism. A number of people were injured, some fatally, trying to get down the stairs to the toilets.
As repair costs mounted, and increasing vehicular traffic demanded wider streets, the bathrooms were gradually demolished and never replaced.
The Garry Street station, which had been expanded in the 1940s when the Fort Street washroom closed, was the last to be demolished in 1979.
In 2007, the year after the province's Memorial Park washroom closed, architect Wins Bridgman — a longtime public washroom advocate and the designer behind the washroom now under construction at Main Street and Henry Avenue — launched a campaign to bring attention to the need for public facilities.
He set up portable toilets on his business premises on Higgins Avenue, which the city soon ordered removed.
But the city again launched a study of its possible role in providing access to public washrooms. A pop-up toilet pilot project launched in 2018, and last year the city set up temporary toilets in a number of locations around the core area, as work began on the permanent facilities on Main Street.
Though he no longer worked for the city by then, Johnston remained active on the issue.
The city committed $290,000 to the project in 2022, which would pay for two staff members to oversee the facility 12 hours a day.
Having the facility supervised 24 hours a day will be crucial to its success, Johnston said, but he's hopeful other levels of government will step up with support.
While people living without shelter will now have a place to go, Johnston says the new facility will benefit all Winnipeggers.
"The public washroom will make a statement that … Winnipeg is forward-thinking. It's acting to provide these amenities to anyone who's in our city."