Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Barge Festival celebrates the immigrants who founded the Red River Selkirk Settlement

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Ye'll take the high road and I'll take the low road, and I'll be at The Forks afore ye.

If you've got a drop of Scottish blood in your veins, this weekend's free Barge Festival at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers is sure to stir ancestral memories of heather, haggis and the Highlands.

"My grandma, every time she heard bagpipes, she'd start to cry," says Paul Jordan, chief operating officer of The Forks and one of many Winnipeggers of Scottish heritage.

A lot of misty eyes are likely on Friday night as beloved Celtic-Canadian singer John McDermott makes a guest appearance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on the barge -- a floating stage moored at The Forks port. (The audience sits on the tiered, grassy area facing the port, so bring lawn chairs or blankets.)

McDermott will perform three songs, including Loch Lomond and the Skye Boat Song. The rest of the 90-minute concert is by composers such as Strauss, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. The orchestra will also play an excerpt from local composer Sid Robinovitch's Red River, a work that will have its world première in November.

Saturday night will be a rowdier celebration headlined by Celtica, a bagpipe-blowing rock band with pyrotechnics. "Flaming bagpipes -- that's the way I've been describing it," says Jordan.

And Sunday, after a closing performance by Nova Scotia Celtic band the Barra MacNeils, there will be fireworks choreographed to the spine-tingling accompaniment of bagpipes.

The skirl of the pipes and the sight of tartan will be inescapable all weekend as the third annual Barge Festival, produced by The Forks in partnership with the Committee for the Bicentenary of the Red River Selkirk Settlement 2012, takes The Red River Gathering as its theme. The festival has federal funding through Canadian Heritage, though the amount of the grant has not been announced.

It's all in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Selkirk settlers' arrival from Scotland -- a seminal event in Winnipeg history.

Phyllis Fraser, co-chairwoman of the committee, says the colonists' story of being driven from tenant farms in Scotland and starting over in a new land can be appreciated by people of every immigrant background.

"All immigrants who came to Manitoba share that -- they came in search of a better life," she says.

Fraser, a direct descendant of the settlers, also hopes the festival will inspire Manitobans to embrace their own lively history.

"I grew up with Walt Disney, watching Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and all that," she says. "It was so romantic and interesting. Our history is just as much that way, but we just haven't made it colourful. This is what we're trying to do."

The Barge Festival features not only music and dance, but river pageantry. Just before Friday's WSO concert, two 12-metre replica York boats, newly constructed by Parks Canada, will be rowed up the river and into the harbour by the Riel Gentlemen's Choir, a local band of about 25 hearty young men who belt out historic songs on the water. One of the York boats will deliver WSO conductor Alexander Mickelthwate to the floating stage.

"It should be quite dramatic," Jordan says.

Jordan discovered the choir by accident this summer. He was out on the Assiniboine River in his kayak and was amazed to hear a glorious sound rising from a flotilla of canoes. "They were singing, and it was just mesmerizing," he says.

On Sunday afternoon, the annual Selkirk Settlers' Parade, packed with pipe bands and costumed members of the Manitoba Living History Society, will march into The Forks site. Then there's a demonstration of Scottish heavy games.

In recognition of the fact that the settlers wouldn't have survived without help and friendship from the First Nations, Métis and francophone people, the Barge Festival also features music and dance by those cultural groups.

The festival kicks off a parade of colourful bicentenary events, extending through Sept. 9. The present-day Lord Selkirk arrives from Edinburgh on Saturday to attend the weeklong festivities, including a $100-a-plate gala bicentenary dinner for up to 1,000 people. A four-page guide to the events was wrapped around Wednesday's Free Press, or visit

Fraser says it's difficult to count how many people are coming from beyond the province for the gathering, but she knows of at least 50 direct descendants who are headed here from across North America, many with their families. "The momentum is definitely building," she says.

A reception at Government House for direct descendants has maxed out at 120 guests.

The Barge Festival, a legacy project of Winnipeg's 2010 Cultural Capital year, has had its challenges, but has drawn an estimated 30,000 people for the past two years.

Last year, the water was so high, there wasn't enough riverbank for the audience. The barge -- a commercial-grade dock topped with a stage surface -- had to be parked on The Forks' main plaza.

Earlier this year, an arsonist torched the barge while it was in storage. Luckily, insurance covered the cost of rebuilding it, Jordan says.

Jordan's dream of eventually towing the barge along the river while musicians perform on it has been snuffed out.

"The Department of Transport are party poopers," he says with a chuckle. "If I want to do that, I have to turn it into a boat. I have to have an enclosed hull. It (would be) ridiculously expensive."

Organizers still hope maybe the barge can be moored at other sites, such as the Legislative Building or the Alexander Docks, for future performances.

The Barge Festival is intended to have a different theme each year, and The Forks welcomes proposals from groups that might want to partner on producing it.

"What's going to happen next year, I have no idea," Jordan says.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 30, 2012 C1


Updated on Thursday, August 30, 2012 at 9:48 AM CDT: adds fact box

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