Pity poor Winnipeg. Even weather-hardened Canadians call it Winterpeg. In terms of its position on the Trans Canadian rail map, the city has an uneviable challenge to live up to. It’s the half way point on Via Rail’s Canadian route, it’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, between Toronto and Vancouver, two dizzyingly vibrant Canadian cities while being the only major port of civilisation after miles of Ontarian Canadian Shield cragged wilderness and endless Prairie farmland.
It’s also the point where the train decamps to change crews, meaning that Via Rail passengers travelling beyond it get the chance to spend a few hours there. Now obviously this was all the time I had to explore myself and I fully accept that I probably skated the most cursory skim of the city’s surface, but let’s face it, first impressions count and first impressions are not great.
There’ s a heck of a lot of beigey/grey 60s & 70s concrete to take in, drab chain hotels and industrial sprawl. Whereas most Canadian cities have built extensive underground PATH systems to enable locals to ferret about in all weathers, Winnipeg has bizzarrely opted for an overground walkway system. The wide streets at 9am on a weekday were deserted, save for the odd forebodingly fast truck. Crossing the road was a military exercise. There were few faces about, most of them looked weatherbeaten, pinched and downtrodden. This was mid September but there was precious little evidence of fall colours abounding. Even the air seemed a shade of grey.
Cow poo fills my nostrils as I venture out along Broadway. I spy the familiar Mansard roof of the Fairmont and wish I was inside succumbing to its comforts. A walk along the river seems like a good idea but it’s looking a little shut, as does the city in general at this time of day. I spy a series of inauspicious visual cues and can’t resist the temptation to capture them as snarky souvenirs…
Attracted by some musical noise I head over a stretch of greenery towards a hideous construction reminsicnent of a giant, nightmarish climbing frame. It appears to be a new museum in the making: the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
It’s Canada’s first national musuem in 40 years. Apparently it is overbudget and with its planned opening date in serious doubt. Maybe it will do a fine job of asserting the city’s cultural clout and will be as striking and handosme as Edmonton’s Alberta Art Gallery, but it’s something of an unavoidabale eyesore at this stage.
Anyway, back to the source of hubbub which dragged me over this way in the first place. I get closer and see a stage and the familiar smell of hotdogs and candy floss wafts over. It appears to be some sort of festival. There are a few hundred families camped out on the damp grass.
Once in earshot of the stage and its echoy microphone I see a grown man comparing proceedings with a muppet like puppet on his lap. It’s evidently an evangelical Christian pow-wow and it is deeply creepy. Our MC gabbing on in a squeaky voice about how ‘he really likes girls, but the nice girls only like boys who say no to drugs and yes to Jesus.’
Eventually I shudder my way towards Forks Market, the one and only Winnipeg recommendation my train guards had to give me. Things immediately begin to look up. It sits in the station’s old rail yard, so a number of old railcars have been very sweetly refurbished to host candy shops, gift shops and craft shops. There’s a large marquee hung from that bright, multicoloured tubular steel so popular with 1980s shopping centre town planners.
Admittedly Forks Market is no Jean Talon, but despite its modest size it serves a potent reminder of just how multi cultural a place Canada is. Alongside rumble inducing organic bakeries and praternaturally wholesome looking fruit n veg stands I find Ukranian, Costa Rican and Chilean food outlets. I check these out and weigh up ordering a plate of looney cakes, which I’m sorely tempted to try for the name alone, I opt instead for a simple, artery-hardening Pan Scrambler at Danny’s All Day Breakfast bar.
A slightly half hearted Winne the Pooh effigy takes pride of place in the barn’s rafters. The legend has it that Winnipeg inspired the naming of AA Milne’s beloved bear, in a round about fashion. Milne’s son Christopher Robin named his teddy bear Winnie the Pooh after Winnipeg, the bear found (actually in White River, Ontario) by a WW1 Canadian soldier and named after the soldier’s home town and later exported to London Zoo. Winnipeg also makes a claim for the inspiration behind James Bond but that’s another story and I spied no dangling 007 in Forks Market…
I look out onto Red River, today a definite mud brown, transfixed for a moment by flocks of Canada Geese vying for attention with the endless Mearsk shipping containers rumbling across the rail bridge and feel myself gradually warming to the place…a little.
On my way back from the park I am heartily impressed by the North Forks Celebration Circle in the Heritage Park, a sizeable piece of public art-cum-cultural diorama, packed with interesting First Nations history and language. It’s like getting a compacted Canadian history lesson inside a giant stone carved compass. The scale of it seems to echo that of the vast country whose story it tells.
Deeper into downtown I snap a number of vintage wall adverts. I’m a sucker for Americana of this kind, I know they’re widespread in many North American cities, but Winnipeg’s are striking and largely in tact.
There’s a crowd gathering on the street outside Aqua Books. I fail to find out exactly who they are queing for at 10.30am but am impressed none the less with the locals’ devotion. Maybe you have to swoop on whatever cultural opps that come your way in Winnipeg. Further along the street a no bones about it spit n sawdust saloon, Tex Mex country music bar High & Lonesome also intrigues me and almost makes me wish I was here of an evening to check it out.
Eventually my time is up. It takes me almost ten minutes to cross the road back to Union Station, good job I resisted a final once around the block. When I get back home a helpful Canuck points me to this song, the Weakerthans’ One Great City, with its plangent chorus of ‘I Hate Winnipeg.’
I’m glad to say I don’t hate Winnipeg, but I’m also glad I only gave it half a day. Maybe next time it’ll win me over.
Now it’s your turn. So tell me Winterpeggers , what essential stuff did I miss ?