May 15, 2017
Canadians often refer to their seventh-largest city as “Winterpeg.” There are far colder places, to be sure, but winter does seem to have a long run there. Measurable snow can fall at any time from mid-October to mid-May. However, Winnipeggers were quick to inform me that with global warming the winters are now shorter and less severe than in past decades. This winter season the snow didn’t begin until mid-November, and the ground was clear by mid-March, with brief snowfalls persisting throughout April.
My arrival in early May was well-timed. Daytime highs were in the upper 50s to upper 60s, and spring seemed anxious to burst forth in a blaze of green. The difference in the leaves was apparent even from one day to the next. The populace of “the Peg,” as the city is affectionately known to its residents, was anxious to be outside—in their gardens, on their bicycles and in their parks. There were glimpses of what a pleasant place this could be in the summer, however brief. At the end of my trip, my worries that I had outrun spring were unfounded.
I had arranged a stay with Warm Showers hosts Yves and Jackie Brunel, who turned out to be absolutely delightful. Retired empty-nesters nearly my own age, they had raised their three children in an attractive neighborhood of modest 1940s and ‘50s homes on the east side of the Red River from downtown. Today one of the big advantages of the area is that the city’s core is at most a 30-minute walk or 10-minute bike ride away, rather than the long commutes in rush-hour traffic faced by residents of other more trendy neighborhoods.
The area on the east side of the river also has a distinctive French flavor, evidence of the fact that Winnipeg maintains the farthest west sizable French-speaking community of any city in Canada. Slightly less than 15 percent of the city’s population speaks French as their first language at home and in the schools.
A distinguishing feature of Canadian history revolves around language, reflecting the two European nations that were instrumental in its settlement. Today, in some ways, the original mother countries are less divided by language issues than their former colony, which in 2017 is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its founding as a nation after first being settled in the early 1600s.
Social scientists say that language and culture are inextricably intertwined, as Canada amply demonstrates. No other single issue has vexed Canadians for so long and in as many different ways. A fundamental question asked about nearly everyone is whether they are anglophone (English is their first language), francophone (French-speaking since an early age) or allophone (a speaker of another language at home).
Today Canada has two official languages: English and French, and all government communications are required to be provided and published in both. But of course only a relatively small percentage of people are truly bilingual, and as francophones are quick to point out, a much larger number of the francophone population (more than 90 percent) understands and can speak English than anglophone Canadians (less than 15 percent) who know French well enough to use it. This is the source of more than a little sensitivity by francophones, who worry that their culture could disappear if their language is not protected and maintained.
The numbers tell the story. One hundred years ago the francophone population of Canada approached 30 percent; today it is about 18 percent. The reasons are partly demographic and reflect common trends. French-Canadians, who are still largely Catholic, no longer have the large families that were traditional. However, it is more than that. The prevailing culture in North America, dominated by the U.S. with more than nine times the population of Canada, is English-speaking. And francophones, who are now more likely to marry outside their communities, face the difficulty of maintaining their language in this majority culture.
The result is a francophone community that feels pressured to defend its language. Historically, the anglophone-majority provinces (all but French-dominant Quebec, and New Brunswick, which is almost evenly divided in terms of language) discouraged French and encouraged English in the name of creating a common community. In Western Canada in particular, French was forbidden to be taught in the schools. It took court battles and a kind of linguistic civil rights movement to remedy the situation, and the sensitivity lingers even some 60 to 70 years after the fact.
To return to my topic of Winnipeg, the city’s and Manitoba’s francophone community, although a minority one, have particularly deep roots, dating back to the 17th century and the voyageurs who traversed the region’s rivers and lakes. The city’s location where the Assiniboine River joins the Red River was already the site of a native settlement and became a meeting, trading and wintering place for travelers. The voyageurs eventually intermarried with the native population, producing a unique French-speaking Metis culture that persists today. They were joined later by Quebec farmers who came to till the rich prairie soil, as well as immigrants from France.
The hub of Winnipeg’s francophone community is the neighborhood of St. Boniface on the east bank of the Red River, formerly a separate city that was amalgamated into greater Winnipeg in the 1970s. It is centered around a hospital of the same name founded by French nuns, and the majestic Cathedral of St. Boniface. The streets feature French names and the shops maintain a French flavor with signs in both languages, although people will speak English to strangers unless they are known to be francophone. French seems to be reserved for the home, in school and with family and neighbors.
My hosts Yves and Jackie are francophone, descendants of early 20th century settlers, but totally bilingual. Yves taught physical education in the schools, and then later history and social studies, while Jackie worked for one of the large banks that dominate the Canadian financial sector. They are cultured and articulate, proud of their heritage, eager to answer questions and explain things to a visitor, and good conversationalists.
Yves is a passionate practitioner of and advocate for outdoor activities, including bicycling and canoeing, that keep him much younger than his years. He began long distance bicycle touring in the summers while still teaching, which has continued even more avidly in his retirement. His destinations have included Southeast Asia, Europe on two occasions, and the West Coast of the U.S. Late this summer and fall he is planning a three-month bike/canoe trip to France and Spain with people he met via Warm Showers. His profile on the Warm Showers site is full of positive feedback from his hosts, and he has also hosted some of them when they have toured Canada. I felt humbled by his extensive travels and knowledge of the world.
Jackie accompanied her husband on several non-bicycling trips early in their marriage, but today she says she is content to mind her home and her own interests while he is the world traveler. “Yves is the outgoing one,” she told me. “I’m more of an introvert and a home person.” Yet I found her to be warm, uncommonly well-read and excellent company for conversation. I was honored to be their guests and would welcome them to my home in an instant.
My time in Winnipeg was limited to less than 48 hours, but I wanted to see at least some of the city’s sights. The first was the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the only national museum in Canada located outside the capital city of Ottawa. Spurred by a gift from a local philanthropist who died in 2003, it was completed in 2014 at a cost of $350 million. The spectacular building has become an identifiable landmark on the city’s skyline.
I’m sure U.S. conservatives, including some of my friends, would dismiss the notion of a human rights museum as, in the words of one of them, “moonbeams and rainbows.” However, I think Canadians would see it differently, as an opportunity for Canada to assert its role in the world as different from that of the U.S., and to be a leader in a different way. To be fair, Canada’s human rights record is not exemplary in every regard, and the museum has exhibits pointing out such events as the forced removal of native children from their families to residential schools far from their homes, the internment of Canadians of Japanese ancestry during World War II, and the failure to admit large numbers of Jewish refugees and would-be immigrants prior to the Holocaust.
But I also experienced a sense of satisfaction in a museum that celebrates the contribution of such world citizens as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malala Yousafzai, all of whom struggled and prevailed in one way or another over oppression, and who remind us of our better natures. I left the museum proud to be a citizen of a nation that recognizes and commemorates the spirit they represent, the sacrifices they have made and the important work they have done.
My last stop prior to the train station in preparation for the final leg of my trip home was at what Winnipeggers refer to as “the Forks,” actually the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers that has been the de facto gathering point of the city for more than two centuries. It’s close enough to downtown that office workers can enjoy their lunches there and catch some entertainment at the end of the day, at least when the weather is not extreme. I arrived about 5:00 on a mostly sunny weekday afternoon in May to find a fair-sized crowd outdoors in the 60-degree temperature despite the noticeable chill of a stiff northwest breeze. Even in the interior city of Winnipeg, the diversity of Canadians and their country was easily apparent. “Winterpeg” notwithstanding, it would not be an unpleasant place to live.
The architecturally striking Canadian Museum for Human Rights, now an identifiable part of Winnipeg’s skyline:
The view from the tower of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Union Station, my departure point, is in the middle ground:
“The Forks” in Winnipeg, actually the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers:
St. Boniface Cathedral in French-speaking Winnipeg:
My delightful Winnipeg Warm Showers hosts, Yves and Jackie Brunel:
The end of the trail: