Summer in WinnipegAfter

Summer in Winnipeg

After wrapping up three days on the Alberni Pacific Railway as conductor, I scooted home over the hump to Nanaimo. I had just a few hours to pack and snatch a bit of shuteye before boarding a 6 am flight out of Cassidy Airport through Vancouver to Winnipeg. My wife Pat was flying to Manitoba to adjudicate examinations for the Toronto Conservatory of Music and I was along as ‘gopher’.

I’d not seen the renovated domestic flight terminal in Vancouver since the Olympic makeover last winter and was suitably impressed with the new facility. On the other hand, arrival at the Winnipeg terminal later in the day left much to be desired. Peeling wall paint, worn and badly cracked floor coverings plus untidy washrooms. I couldn’t believe a provincial capital could have such a dilapidated airport terminal.  However, it turned out what I was looking at was soon to be demolished. Situated next door to the crumbling edifice we’d arrived at, a brand new state-of-the-art terminal is due to open in a few months. I would guess Winnipeggers will be pleased to see the present eyesore gone.

Retrieving our rental car outside the terminal, I recalled the last time I was in this very parking lot. It was mid-January several years ago and the temperature was 30 plus below zero with a bone-numbing wind chill that made it difficult to breath. I remember having to bang on the frozen doors of our rental car to get them open. This trip the temperature was a baking 30 above and climbing.  Leaving the terminal we made one right hand turn and then it was a straight, and I mean straight, two-hour drive to Brandon.

That evening while Pat was preparing her next day’s examination sessions, I took a drive around the city. Sadly Brandon is a clear-cut example of how life can be sucked out of a community’s downtown business district when mega-store chains open in nearby suburbs.  Unfortunately boarded up shops in the downtown are commonplace as local merchants struggle to compete with the gargantuan internationals surrounding them. For a start I’d suggest getting rid of the coin-gobbling parking meters that inhabit every square inch of the city’s downtown core.

Picking up Pat after her exam session at the University of Brandon, we headed east on the Trans-Canada back to Winnipeg.  Our rental car needed to be dropped off at the airport. Using a GPS to find our way through the outlying streets leading to the Winnipeg airport entrance, the gizmo had trouble with the programmed address resulting in a wrong turn which trapped us into entering the terminal’s short-term parking area instead of the rental car drop off lot. I had to shell out the one-hour parking fee in order to exit and loop around the terminal a second time and re-enter. This time I got it right. After parking the car and turning in the keys we caught a cab to our downtown hotel.

I mentioned above that the last time I was in Winnipeg it was mid-winter. It was unbearably cold and the city’s street life was virtually driven underground as everyone made their way like moles about the downtown by accessing a labyrinth of tunnels and overpasses between the malls and office buildings. What a difference a season makes.  Outdoor concerts, sidewalk cafes, vendors selling their trinkets, farmer’s markets – all surfaced to give an exciting vibrancy to Winnipeg’s downtown core’s summertime street life. On our previous winter trip I skated on the Assiniboine River’s 8.5 km natural ice trail which is the world’s longest according to the Guinness Book of World Records, besting the 7.8 km skateway on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. In contrast, on this summertime trip I cycled along the Assiniboine on paved bike lanes. The walking trail, which is closer to the river, was still under 6 feet of flood waters.

PHOTO: Three eastbound and three westbound VIA Rail trains (The Canadian) roll through Winnipeg’s historic Union Station each week. Checking out a westbound train one morning I stumbled across an excellent railroad museum located within the historic station complex.

The big sports celebration in Winnipeg this summer is the second coming of the Jets hockey team. The MTS Centre where the newly minted NHL team will play was next door to our downtown hotel. During our stay the hockey rink’s official clothing shop was in the process of purging all the Manitoba Moose memorabilia and replacing it with stock stamped with the Winnipeg Jets new logo. The new loco pays homage to Canadian air force’s rich history in Winnipeg and consists of a blue-circled red maple leaf with a saber jet pointed true north. Apparently there is a smattering of anti-military folks in the city who don’t like that fact and the local scribes were playing up the story. Other news stories about the team wondered if the Jets will be able to attract top moneyed talent because player’s wives might never agree to live in relatively pastoral Winnipeg when the high life of New York, Los Angeles and other more cosmopolitan cities beckoned. Also it was noted there was a severe shortage of suitable luxury homes for rent in Winnipeg.  O dear, the terrible inconveniences these hockey mult-millionaires have to contend with.

Travelling with Pat on her adjudication trips over the years has given me the pleasant occasion to play tourist in many Canadian and American cities. In Winnipeg I found no shortage of things to do. Visits to the Manitoba Museum, the Legislative Buildings, the St. Boniface Cathedral, a boat cruise on the Assiniboine and Red Rivers, attending a minor league baseball game between Winnipeg and St. Paul Minnesota and biking an area called The Forks (think Granville Island) were all on the agenda. I also enjoyed a day at the Winnipeg Zoo, which is currently constructing a $45-million polar bear exhibit. Due to open in 2013, visitors will be able to ride among polar bears aboard a tundra-buggy within a huge building featuring an arctic-like environment. By that I assume it will be refrigerated in the summer with the Winnipeg winter supplying the needed environment at that time of year. Entitled A Visit to Churchill, the exhibit will hold six adult bears and any cubs born on site. Orphaned or injured bears will be brought from the Arctic to the Winnipeg facility and readied to be re-introduced back into the wild.

PHOTO: The Countess of Dufferin steam engine was the first locomotive to operate on the Canadian Prairies. Built in 1872 by Baldwin Co, of Philadelphia, the locomotive is part of the Midwestern Railway Association’s Railway Museum’s extensive collection housed in Winnipeg’s historic Union Station.

PHOTO: Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel stands proudly in tribute to a time when railway hotels catered to the discriminatory traveller demanding the very best in luxury accommodation and service. Built in 1913 by the Grand Trunk Railway the architecture is in the chateau style with steep roofs, turrets and lavish ornamentation. When I visited the hotel a number of years ago a casino was in operating in the ballroom. However, in the early 2000s the hotel removed the casino and restored the Crystal Ballroom back to its original purpose of dining and dancing. Last week Pat and I took the opportunity to attend the hotel’s lavishly presented Sunday Brunch.

While in Winnipeg I had time to catch up on all the summer movies. Pat and I finally got around to seeing the new (and last) Harry Potter film. However my favourite film this summer was The Help based on Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel of the same name. The film is set in Mississippi in the turbulent, racially charged 1960s and centers on two African-American maids who tell their sad and shocking stories of mistreatment to a young, white privileged southern woman who hopes to become a published author. She convinces the maids to help her tell the story of the racial divide between the southern women of Mississippi from a unique, and never-before-told, behind-the-scenes perspective.

I also caught the concert film Glee. In case you’ve been living on another planet for the last couple of years I’m sure you’ve watched, or heard of the popular TV program about an all-inclusive high school choir. To my mind the weekly show has given an enormous boost to high school vocal programs in North America and beyond. Filmed in 3-D during this summer’s live Glee stage tour, the movie makes one realize why the TV show is so appealing to multiple generations at once. From Beatle songs to Barbara Streisand’s hit Don’t Rain on My Parade, there’s something for everyone. It’s a little hard tell how much of the music in the film is live and how much is pre-recorded, from the singing-dancers who never seem to take a breath to the band, who sound at times like a full orchestra. However, in my book, any musical troupe that can fend off that degenerating Gangster Rap stuff gets my vote. 
Our last evening in Winnipeg Pat and walked to the Forks (so named because the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet here) to hear an outdoor concert presented by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. The event was billed as the annual Barge Festival. The orchestra normally plays the concert aboard a barge floating on the Assiniboine River. However with the river still at flood levels the concert was held onshore.

PHOTO: With construction completion projected for 2012, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is not without controversy. promises to be an inspiring international landmark, drawing visitors from around the globe to Winnipeg. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a $310 million project created in partnership between the Government of Canada, the Province of Manitoba and the City of Winnipeg. You can watch the progress of construction by accessing their webcams at

Coming home, the Winnipeg to Vancouver leg of our flight was on time. Pat and I were booked on different flights from Vancouver to Nanaimo. My 1:45 pm flight was overbooked by 1 seat. Air Canada asked if someone would give up his or her seat for a $200 voucher plus lunch. I accepted so I’d be on the same flight as Pat at 3:15 pm. However, on Pat’s flight a baggage problem surfaced. A rock band was aboard and the airline had forgotten to load all their musical equipment. The flight was delayed while the baggage handlers repacked the baggage bay of the small Dash aircraft in order to get the band’s ton of gear on board. We didn’t get off the ground until 5:00 pm. Arriving in Nanaimo I had under an hour to get home, shower, pack my piano and head to Qualicum for a gig at the Shady Rest Pub.

There you have it, some minutiae about my 2-week excursion with Pat to the geographical centre of North America. To all those folks who told me I’d be eaten alive by Winnipeg’s giant mosquitoes - to my great relief (and the local population), the annual onslaught of the pesky bloodsuckers failed to show up this summer. Winnipeggers’ are thrilled and outdoor restaurants have never been busier.