McGregor Armoury a military and community asset

Article / November 15, 2016 / Project number: 16-0302

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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Winnipeg, Manitoba — Winnipeg’s McGregor Armoury combines architectural beauty and functionality in a historically significant structure that is also a valuable community asset for residents of the city’s North End today.

The Armoury’s design nods to the Beaux Arts architectural style also seen in such well-known Canadian buildings as Toronto’s Union Station. Grand as it might look to modern observers, the armoury was in fact based on one of five standard design templates that were created by Canada’s Militia Engineer Services Branch in order to make the process of building armouries simpler and less expensive.

“To our eyes today they do look ornate but they weren’t seen that way at the time,” explained Captain Gord Crossley, a Canadian Army Reservist and second in command of The Fort Garry Horse, which has called McGregor Armoury home since 1965.  “They were considered quite simple and functional.”

Capt Crossley is also something of a unit historian, having co-authored Facta Non Verba: A History of the Fort Garry Horse. The volume was published in 2012 to coincide with the Regiment’s centenary. He explained that, between 1899 and 1910, armouries were the responsibility of the federal Department of Public Works. Frederick Borden, Minister of Militia and Defence in the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, worked to have that responsibility shifted to engineers in the Militia, the precursor to today’s Reserve.

Borden’s vision was fully realized in 1911 by Sir Samuel Hughes , his successor in Sir Robert Borden’s government.

“Hughes oversaw a rapid expansion of the Militia so he needed buildings that weren’t as ornate and something that could be built quickly by small contractors, especially in small towns in rural Saskatchewan, Alberta and so on,” said Capt Crossley.

Hughes proved to be highly successful in his efforts and, between 1911 and 1914, Militia engineers had finished work on 43 armouries. The initiative was well-timed given that the Militia required ample recruiting and training infrastructure as the First World War began.

“The program didn’t continue after 1916 because so many armouries had been built and many were being completed as the war was beginning,” Capt Crossley said. “And a lot of the plans had to be altered as well because many of them moved from what would have been used as part-time structure on weekends and evenings to full-time for recruiting and housing the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.”

The first unit to call McGregor Armoury home was the 106th Winnipeg Light Infantry (WLI), though most of its members were in the trenches by the time it opened. The rest remained behind to train new recruits.

After the war, WLI members returned to peacetime operations and a part-time training regimen. The wider community began to make use of the space as a community centre and several rooms were put into service as classrooms to serve a post-war influx of Eastern European refugee families that settled in the North End. McGregor Armoury, Capt Crossley noted, has continued to be a valuable community asset along with its larger counterpart in West Winnipeg, Minto Armouries.

“The armouries built in Western Canada tended to be more rural,” he said. “They built them close to railway access if necessary or on the outskirts of the cities, which have ow grown up to be communities. The two armouries in Winnipeg were both very well-connected to the community by their location and still are. Minto Armouries for years had flea markets and track meets inside, and schools were using it. Same thing with McGregor Armoury – sports leagues met here and so on.”

McGregor Armoury was back on a war footing at the outbreak of the Second World War and put back into service as a recruiting centre and barracks as well as a depot for the Royal Canadian Artillery’s 17 and 19 Batteries.

At the war’s conclusion, the building was back to hosting bingo nights and dances, but further change was afoot. In 1955, as part of a restructuring of the Militia, the WLI were merged with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and moved across town to Minto Armouries. A decade later amidst further restructuring, The Fort Garry Horse, a cavalry unit that had traded its horses in for tanks in 1940, moved in with its Sherman tanks.

A garage constructed on the grounds in the 1950s, Capt Crossley said, is a testament to the durability of the Militia armoury designs.

“That garage lasted up until this year,” said Capt. Crossley. “It’s just been demolished and they’re planning to build a new one. So the garage lasted a lot less time than the armoury but it was simply built of out wood and corrugated metal; it wasn’t anything very fancy. One thing about all the armouries built in this period and why so many of them exist – I count over 21 former armouries from that period that are still standing doing other things, no longer with the military – it’s just that they’re so heavily built of masonry, their lifespan is essentially indefinite if you maintain them.”

Capt Crossley became a part of the McGregor Armoury community himself in his youth: he joined a local Air Cadet unit in 1972 but later decided to go Army with the Garrys.

“You’re 17 years old and you see these guys driving around in jeeps and they had interesting surveillance gear and other stuff. It was very exciting so I joined up and it’s been an excellent part time career. In my civilian life I’m a computer technician – though I am now retired from that.”

The armoury’s deep community roots will be celebrated in May of 2017 when it will be a part of Doors Open Winnipeg, an event inviting members of the public into buildings they do not normally have the chance to see.

“We’ll showcase not only the military aspect but the architectural aspects of the building,” said Capt Crossley. “People don’t know what is inside. Sometimes we have open houses and parades or ceremonial events here and people will come in and say. ‘I’ve lived two streets from here my whole life and never knew what was inside.’”

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