'Who is this serving?' The Leaf's entrance fees cost prohibitive for some, critics say

Winnipeg's new horticultural attraction, The Leaf, is finally close to opening and offering a tropical escape, but some are worried the admission fees will leave many people out in the cold.

Assiniboine Park's newest attraction set to open by end of year

The Leaf was originally supposed to be completed by the end of 2020 but that was pushed to 2021 and is now set for the end of 2022. (Assiniboine Park Conservancy)

Winnipeg's new horticultural attraction, The Leaf, is finally close to opening and offering a tropical escape, but some are worried the admission fees will leave many people out in the cold.

"We have to ask ourselves, who is this serving? Lots of us can't afford to go south in the winter time so it's just really disappointing that there's a financial barrier to participating," said Molly McCracken, a volunteer with the group No User Fees at Diversity Gardens.

The Leaf, which will have four lush biomes, each with trees and plants from different regions, as well as a butterfly garden and six-storey waterfall, is part of Canada's Diversity Garden in the southeast corner of Assiniboine Park.

It was originally supposed to be completed by the end of 2020 but that was pushed to 2021 and is now set for the end of 2022.

Recently, it was revealed that gate admission for The Leaf will range from $8.50 for children age three to 17 to $15.50 for those 18-59. Those 60 and older will pay $13.50.

Critics say admission to The Leaf is too costly for a publicly funded facility that replaces a free attraction. (Assiniboine Park Conservancy)

The old botanical conservatory, first opened in 1914 and later enclosed by a more modern structure in 1968, was always free of charge and a sanctuary from the cold and colourless winter. It was demolished in 2018.

"You just take a step in and can take an easy, deep breath of warm moist air and see all the greenery and palm trees," McCracken said.

"So we are faced with this new model that's really based on attracting tourists. It has the word diversity in it, and diversity means including multiple people of various backgrounds, including people who have different incomes.

"That title is kind of a stark disconnection."

The Leaf, shown in an artist's rendering, will offer four lush biomes and a six-storey waterfall at Assiniboine Park. (Assiniboine Park Conservancy)

The overall Diversity Garden development includes six distinct gardens outside of The Leaf. They opened in July 2021 and are free to walk through.

McCracken pointed out that $75 million of public money went to building the $130-million Leaf. It and the Diversity Garden also receive annual operating funds from the City of Winnipeg, she said.

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy, a non-profit corporation that manages the park, has said free passes will be provided to qualifying visitors, as is done for the zoo.

But McCracken said they aren't as accessible as they should be. A limited number are issued through non-profit organizations for distribution.

"It's not the same as the dignity of just being able to walk up and go when you want to go, so I think that's really a Band-Aid solution."

This is an artist's rendering of what the lobby will look like at The Leaf. The facility is slated to open in late 2022. (Assiniboine Park Conservancy)

Attractions like The Leaf and Diversity Garden require operating money but McCracken said there must be other "creative options" to charging the public.

"I think there's consultation that needs to happen with the City of Winnipeg and its citizens about what to do," she said.

"Going forward, our leaders need to make sure the facilities we're building with all this public money need to be available for the people who live here right now, without financial barriers."

Founded in 2008 to manage and redevelop Assiniboine Park, which opened in 1909, the conservancy has a 50-year lease with the city, which owns the property and assets.

"We have a lot of respect for what Assiniboine Park has accomplished. I mean, it has been transformed, but even going to the zoo now, it's about $70 for family of four and that's really cost prohibitive as well," McCracken said.

"How do we build an inclusive city where there's no user fees to participate, particularly when green space is so important for our mental health, for recreation and our physical health?"

The outdoor gardens at Assiniboine Park, which include six different gardens, opened to the public in July 2021. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

In order to rebuild and sustain the park for the next generation, there needs to be a balance between free access and admission-based access to attractions, Conservancy spokesperson Laura Cabak said.

"What people may not know is that … the zoo was on the brink of closure. It was not meeting standards for animal welfare, and the conservatory was literally on its last legs. Parts of it were quite literally falling apart.

"The free admission model that was in place at the conservatory was not sustainable."

The zoo, which opened in 1904, was also free until 1993. Admission is now $12.25-$21.75, depending on age. 

"The revenue that comes from the paid attractions like the zoo and The Leaf enables a whole host of free access to public green space and programming throughout the park," Cabak said.

Among those are the Nature Playground, the English Garden, the Leo Mol sculpture garden, the duck pond, the summer entertainment series, sports fields and ski trails.

"All of that is available to our community year-round and our staff work incredibly hard to offer those experiences to our community," Cabak said.

A lot of research was conducted to ensure admission rates are in line with similar attractions, she said.

"We know that still doesn't mean that they're affordable for everyone. There's a lot of needs in our community."

The community access program, which provides free access vouchers through social organizations, is being expanded to provide more vouchers to more organizations, Cabak said.

The Conservancy is also looking at free programming in The Leaf aimed at seniors.

Discounted admission days may be considered in the future, she said.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Marjorie Dowhos