The train slowly ambled into Manitoba, still with bright yellow Canola fields to each side of the train. Often lively deer were spotted skipping over the crops chasing birds, or each other. We were running at only 2 hours late all day which was a pleasant surprise. Shannon, a friend from the previous train journey and I boarded at Saskatoon to join Shantelle who had spent the night onboard since Edmonton. Despite the fact Shantelle had got a bargain deal to ride the sleeper class, she joined us back in Economy for the adventure. In the evening the onboard Musician performed blues in the carriage which alongside the beautiful scenery was a perfect moment onboard.
At midnight we pulled into downtown Winnipeg, known as the forks. The meeting point of the Red and Assiniboine rivers is said to have been a gathering place for over 6000 years, and is now the heart of Manitoba’s first city. Winnipeg was once held in great aspiration. When it was first settled it was the gateway to the west, the centre of North America and also North America’s fastest growing city, estimated to hold a population of 3 million by the year 2000. It is currently around 800,000 in a province which totals 1.2 million people, Canada’s 7th biggest city and largely forgotten about except when it comes to commenting on the weather. For this reason I was looking forward to couchsurfing, a way to meet and stay with locals. My first host, Jon, generously picked my up from the station and took me to the home he shared with his partner and 3 cats.
The next morning I had to orientate my way to downtown, (read: coffee shop) a difficult task in the city as unlike other North American cities, it is not put together in the logical, block structure. The French settlers of the city had drawn out the blocks against the Red river, whereas on the other side of town, blocks had been drawn out parallel to the Assiniboine river. In the middle there was a strange, more than 90 degree angle, mostly owned originally by the Hudson’s Bay company. As such, otherwise straight roads, met other roads encompassing a veer around a bend. During this hot summer interlude, Winnipeg Fringe Festival was in town, taking up the centre of the beautiful exchange district. Jon and I took a tour of the exchange district, now noticing how the layers of Architecture had been preserved or replicated over the years as the town grew out of the exchange district. Much of the designs were Robinson Romanesque with the local signature stone of Tindallstone. This limestone from a northern town in the province often displayed veins of fossils running through it. There were many ghost adverts as lead painted adverts heralded back to many years before. As the daylight and the years eroded the pictures layer by layer, these adverts were ever changing, revealing more and more secrets of early Winnipeg.
Winnipeg’s love of the arts clearly wasnt new either. Grand theatres were the lifeblood of entertainment in the 20th century and used lavish props such as horses on treadmills running towards the audience to captivate and entertain. The same theatre, Walker Theatre, hosted Nellie Klung’s mock Parliament in 1914 as she fought for women to get the vote. This controversial play reversed the roles and had a board of women deciding what was best for the men, eventually voting against use of machinery in the fields as it would give the men to much time to think and ultimately crave power. Nellie Klung is credited with leading the fight to get white women the vote in Manitoba which eventually happened in 1916.
Winnipeg’s previous wealth and aspirations is clear on a walk of the city. The intersection of Portage and Main is fronted by wealth as many banks fought to have a presence and make an impression on the most important intersection in the country. It was hard to believe on this hot day, but it is also nicknamed the windiest intersection in Canada. The cities current fight is whether or not the Public Safety Building will stay or go. Its brutalist style is unpopular in the city and the glue that holds the stone on has had to be replaced year on year with steel bars, not adding to its beauty. The area was gifted to the city by a wealthy family to keep the land out of the hands of the Hudson Bay Company who dominated large areas of the city. If torn down, will have to fufil another purpose of serving the community or will be returned to the families descendants.
In the warm evening, Shannon and I found an improv show as part of the fringe and watched the inner workings of the brains of a ridiculous duo as they beat each other with bats and explored the depths of the ocean in the name of comedy.
My hosts John and Katherine lived in the West End of the city, a densely populated area and very multicultural area. This area alone would make up the 3rd biggest city in Manitoba, its closely packed population weighing in at 38,000. It was extremely colourful with many murals celebrating the lives of its people and their pasts. Did you know for example that James Bond comes from the west end of Winnipeg? The real person that inspired Ian Fleming was William Stephenson who moved from Winnipeg to the UK and was a notorious fighter pilot in WW1. In WW2 he worked in counter intelligence. Other murals celebrated actors, locals, mayors and the areas multiculturalism, making it a bright and interesting place to walk around. In pondering murals which celebrated Canada’s future, I also learned where the name “Canada” came from. It was a mishearing of the word Kanata which means village in the language of one of the first nations bands.
I enjoyed the daily coffee in a picturesque part of the city, West Broadway, before selecting another play at the fringe. This time comedian Marcus Ryan talked about travelling in a way that was so relatable it was almost cringey. As it was now midway through my stay in Winnipeg, I was moving to stay with a different host, Laura. She lived in another beautiful part of the city, close to the riverbank. We followed the river into town to do what the locals do on a friday night, enjoy an al fresco beer at the Forks. This area has received a lot of investment to make it a place to be enjoyed and in summer that is evident with beer stands and outdoor seating that looks over the water. From here we ambled into the fringe festival, not before stumbling on possibly the most niche festival ever, the Mac and Cheese festival. Talking to security nicely meant we could go in for a quick peak, where indeed inside they were celebrating all colours and creeds of Mac and Cheese. At the fringe, dancing was well underway with a DJ performing on the open air stage. The beer gardens leaked out into the pubs and “Friendly Manitoba” definitely lived up to its name. At the bar, a foreign accent was acknowledged with questions which were followed by convoluted stories of ancestry and a few drinks.
On my final day in the city I was pleasantly surprised with how much I still wanted to see. The grand Manitoba Legislative building stands at the end of a long parade like street and signifies all the hopes and dreams of its status. Atop is the golden boy, a symbol for the province of individuality and aspiration. The security guard on the way in had me waylaid with stories about Cambridge University for a good 15 minutes before I could proceed, and on the way out, my gift for visiting was a Manitoba pin badge. Inside a guide toured the group through grand marble and tindalstone corridors which serve the province in law making. Two imposing bison welcome you at the bottom of the staircase. As the symbol for the province, they have even made the flag, along with a union jack and an English flag, heavily emphasising their roots.
I returned to The Forks to find its daytime persona was one of local crafts, souvenirs and the buzz of lunchtime. The brick building resembles a stables with each eatery tucked under a grand arch. Just across the bridge is St Boniface, one of three French settlements which have been absorbed into Winnipeg, but which would have at one time been their own city. The roots of the people here are largely Métis who are descended from First Nations and French. For that reason they often received disfavour able treatment by the English and also the French. The grand street that welcomes you to this district now is fronted by a beautiful city hall and leafy gardens, however here, its French first. I got a tour guide from the Tourisme Real to walk with me around the district. There is much artwork and architecture to be seen. Louis Real is memorialised here and celebrated, especially by those with Métis roots, with being the Father of Manitoba having led two rebellions against the Canadian Government in fighting for the rights of Métis culture. The cathedral is now on its 4th structure having been unlucky with many fires through the years. Its current modern design is nestled in the structure of the remaining frontage of the 3rd cathedral is if hoping for protection there.
Winnipeg had been a pleasant surprise to me. Its summer festivities had provided much to see and do and a Sunday morning walk along the river was a great way to prepare for the long train journey north to Churchill.