Burrows-Keewatin: Winnipeg’s first public-housing project

In the spring of 1961, council approved an $8.4-million public housing project intended to be constructed in Northwest Winnipeg.[1] This project, which was known as the time Burrows-Keewatin and is now known as Gilbert Park, was along with the Lord Selkirk Park project, part of a larger urban-renewal initiative that targeted the area north of the Canadian Pacific Railway yards between Main and Salter and south of Selkirk.

The first step was the construction of public housing on vacant land in the city’s northwest. It was to this project, known as Burrows-Keewatin, that families were to be moved to when the slums were knocked down.[2]

City council gave final approval for the $2-million Burrows-Keewatin project in August 1962.[3] In total there were to be ten buildings, with two- to five-bedroom suites. In addition, there were plans for a shopping centre, a recreation centre, and a park in the neighbourhood.[4] With the federal government committed to providing 75 per cent of the funding, the province agreed to split the remaining 25 percent on a fifty-fifty basis. CMHC had awarded the construction contract by December 1962, sod was turned in January 1963, and the first residents moved in October 1963.[5]

Both Burrows-Keewatin and Lord Selkirk Park were managed by the Winnipeg Housing Authority, which was headed by Alex Robertson, the former Chamber of Commerce president who was also the driving force behind Triangle Gardens.[6] Rental rates for both projects were income-based, and as a family’s income increased its rent also increased. When it opened in 1963, Burrows-Keewatin sought to limit residence to households with incomes below $3,500 a year. Families would be encouraged to move out as their income increased.[7] The initial recruitment policy set aside only one-quarter of the units at Burrows-Keewatin and Lord Selkirk Park for families on welfare. Only eleven families in Burrows-Keewatin were what was described as “multi-problem.” These families had been admitted reluctantly, in response to intense lobbying.[8]

As the city’s first public-housing development, Burrows-Keewatin was the subject of considerable media interest. Rhoda Mulvaney, her husband, and her seven children moved into Burrows-Keewatin, Manitoba’s first public-housing project, on September 30, 1963. She felt the move was of greatest importance to her children. “Environment,” she said, “doesn’t make much difference to the adults—our minds are made up on things. But it’s important for the kids. That’s why we are here.”[9]

By 1964, she was the president of the tenant association, and the following year she made a presentation pointing out that some of the work on the project was done poorly and some had never been completed. The association also objected to the fact that rents were calculated based on gross rather than net income and did not adequately consider family size. But she was also philosophical: residents, she said, had experienced “both the good and the bad” that can arise in public housing and hoped that planners would make use of their experience in other buildings.[10]

When interviewed in 1969, Mulvaney remained positive about the opportunities that life in the development had given her children, saying “The kids didn’t seem to have as much chance downtown as they do out here.” That said, while she did not feel personally stigmatized, she said she was “not really in favour of this type of development. I’d rather see older homes renovated, and families on low incomes scattered in different communities.” When asked why, she told Tribune reporter Michael McGarry, “Just because of the questions you ask, about ethnic groups and vandals and what are the people like in this community.”[11]Upon her death in 2014, many of the comments on the online memorial page spoke of the close links that developed between families that lived in the Burrows-Keewatin project.[12]

Winnipeg Tribune columnist Val Werier wrote in 1963 that the quality of the housing at Burrows-Keewatin was a tribute to the planners. Of one family’s unit, he wrote “The kitchen is bright and efficient with new equipment and ample cupboards. It is not elaborate, for an eye was kept on costs. But there is nothing of the appearance of cheap row housing. It has an air of solidity. And it has more space outdoors than many commercial blocks”[13] In 1967, Werier revisited Burrows-Keewatin, writing that “A stranger would not know it as public housing for it appears as an attractive development with builds of dark red brick and white stucco, green lawns and flowers. The grounds are more spacious than expensive townhouse developments.” He did note that tenants have had to “cope with its remoteness from shopping centres and other activities of city life.” Ninety-nine families left in the first two years of operation: 15 left town, 5 left because of distance from work, 10 families broke up, two heads of families died, thirteen families were evicted, 11 separated, and 17 left for other reasons, seven bought homes, and 19 moved because their rents had risen to the point where they could rent elsewhere. Werier believed “The development has been a tremendous step forward in the provision of good housing for 900 people who would otherwise be living in mean, crowded quarters.”[14]

[1] “$8.4 Million Housing Approved by Council,” Winnipeg Tribune, 7 March 1961.

[2] ‘Ward Three Aldermen Tear Into Housing Plan,” Winnipeg Tribune, 5 April 1960; “Housing can be attractive,” Winnipeg Tribune, March 4, 1960.

[3] “Minister declines slum talk,” Winnipeg Tribune, March 9, 1962; Burrows-Keewatin approved,” Winnipeg Tribune, August 8, 1962.

[4] “40 low-rent units ready by Oct. 15,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 19, 1963.

[5] Laszlo Bastyovanszky, “Ol’ Jarvis Avenue gets ready for a facelift,” Winnipeg Free Press, January 15, 1963; “40 low-rent units ready by Oct. 15,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 19, 1963.

[6] “Housing authority,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 10, 1967.

[7] “40 low-rent units ready by Oct. 15,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 19, 1963.

[8] Heather Robertson, “Burrows—not a new slum,” Winnipeg Tribune, October 15, 1966; Eugen Weiss, “Lord Selkirk Park: Is it good of bad?” Winnipeg Tribune, March 7, 1970.

[9] “Big step out of the slums into a bright new world,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 17, 1963.

[10] “Home repairs – tenants,” Winnipeg Free Press, September 3, 1965; “Manitoba’s first low-rent housing officially opened,” Winnipeg Free Press, June 26, 1964.

[11] Michael McGarry, “Happiness is the sunset at Burrows-Keewatin,” Winnipeg Tribune, February 8, 1969.

[12] “Rhoda Sarah-Ann Mulvaney,” https://passages.winnipegfreepress.com/passage-details/id-209386/MULVANEY_RHODA, accessed November 19, 2021.

[13] Val Werier, “Now they have a ‘decent place to live,’” Winnipeg Tribune, December 28, 1963.

[14] Val Werier, “Four years of low rental housing,” Winnipeg Tribune, October 4, 1967.