Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winter roads

Willy's Garage TV series sets out on northern adventure

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Since it's a sure bet that our entire crew, including yours truly, are monumental pains in the ass, one can only assume that MTS TV called us back to film a third season of our Willy's Garage television series because our ratings are good.

So before we go any further, if you're among the thousands of viewers who have been tuning in to watch our antics... Thanks!

To get you up to speed, for the past few years, MTS has been hiring local filmmakers to create a variety of television programs and documentaries that air on the cable provider's unique video-on-demand format. If you're an MTS cable subscriber, you can simply press the VOD button on your remote control any time day or night to uncover a cornucopia of locally produced programs flavoured with local content, including the first two seasons of Willy's Garage.

In season one, our crew lined up an awesome variety of local classic and special-interest vehicles that the owners graciously let me test drive. Last season they let me try my luck at a number of motorsports, including drag racing, stock cars, rally and motocross. We even got to fly in a Hercules with a Royal Canadian Air Force search and rescue crew. They wisely never let me actually fly the plane, but they let me sit in the cockpit.

This season we are going in a totally different direction. North!

In February, we will be filming five 22-minute episodes that will focus on what it's like to travel deep into Manitoba's north in the dead of winter. Highlights will include the construction of a blizzard-beating Jeep Grand Cherokee, winter driving tips and survival skills and an epic road trip that will lead us up north on winter roads to visit our First Nations friends in northern Manitoba.

MTS TV executive producer Cam Bennett has once again commissioned local producer and director Scott Leary from Winnipeg's own Farpoint Films to create our show. Leary has become a treasured friend and we are pumped that he will be leading us again. Although the production crew hasn't been totally hammered out yet, we are crossing our fingers that Dave Gaudet will be back. He's a tremendously talented cameraman who is among the most sought-after underwater shooters on earth. Hopefully Gaudet won't have to demonstrate his underwater skills while filming us traversing across frozen lakes, but that would surely make for great TV.

The entire television experience has been a total riot and, as much as I'd hoped having television cameras in their faces and pretty ladies slathering them with makeup didn't go too much to their heads, it looks like my pals have gone all Hollywood on me. I'm reasonably certain that my buddy Evel Dave Radey now wears cologne, or maybe it's just soap, and hot rod demon Jason Holmes seems to be wearing his sunglasses indoors more than he used to, while our resident commander, Amy Hamel, is reportedly constantly signing autographs at the bottom of parts invoices at her job at Harley-Davidson Winnipeg. As if all that wasn't enough, Solid Wade is now such a rock star that he cut his hair and changed his name.

All kidding aside, while it was initially an exciting prospect to see ourselves on TV, what we've finally figured out is it's ultimately just another form of media, or simply put, another way to tell the story.

In the past 10 years I have written more than 500 Willy's Garage features and told you stories I hope you found interesting about a multitude of people and their relationships with their machines. Whether they build them, buy them, sell them or race them, there is a different story for every single vehicle on earth. Some writers who wax about cars pretty much focus on the vehicles, but over the years, I've endeavoured to find that connection between man (and woman) and their machine.

This season, mixed in with the aforementioned tips on how to survive a winter of driving in Manitoba, I also have another story to tell.


My dearly missed grandmother Molly LeBrun, or memere as she was known to us kids, was born in 1907 in St. Jean Baptiste, 75 kilometres south of Winnipeg. We were very close and I was at her side when she died at 94 years old in 2001.

Her father was Jean Baptiste Bartlette and her mother was Marie Vandal.

They were Métis, and so am I.

I was forever fascinated by my grandmother's stories, and she had many. The one that has always resonated with me the most though, the family legend that I romanticize in my mind's eye, revolves around a winter journey.

There was, however, no car, no truck, no train and most certainly not an airplane.

It was the winter of 1920 and my grandmother was 13 years old. The Bartlettes had to make a chilly trek from St. Jean to nearby Morris in a horse-drawn sleigh to get some supplies and groceries. As the crow flies, it's only 10 km from St. Jean to Morris, but it's a much longer trip, at least twice that distance, if they travelled down the winding and frozen Red River. The straight line may have been the logical choice, but it also meant they had to cross a small section of neighbouring property, and apparently that neighbour didn't like the Bartlettes.

This story was told to me many times, and I know the opposing family's name, but I have no desire to rekindle any family feuds here so let's just call them the Bully family. Although other families from the area were permitted to use the trail that crossed Bully land, the Bartlettes weren't welcomed.

"Bully told my dad he didn't want no goldamn Indians cutting across his land," my grandmother would tell me with a mixture of pride and pain in her eyes.

My great-grandfather Jack had apparently had enough of taking the long way around while everyone else rolled down Bully highway and that winter day in 1920, he decided to take his chances. Things were going smoothly until they heard horses in the distance. Bully came across their path on his huge horse with two of his sons riding behind him. According to my grandmother, he was a big man with a big moustache and a nasty disposition. Bully started cussing at my great-grandfather and told him to turn his sleigh around and get himself and his dirty Indian kids off his property. "Boy, that was it," my grandmother would tell me, her voice rising as she vividly relived the moment. "Old Jack Bartlette had finally had enough."

If I close my eyes I can see my grandmother, I can hear her voice, and I can clearly see the scene she painted for me.

"Even though he had fists as big as hams and he could bite the heads off of nails, my father was a gentle man and he never looked for trouble," she would tell me with her voice rising and falling like a song, "but that day Bully went too far and old Jack Bartlette really put him in his place. It was over in seconds; the blood really flew, it turned the white snow red."

According to my grandmother, her brothers and the Bully boys broke up the fight and following a tense but silent standoff, Bully finally climbed back on his horse and rode away.

From that day on, the Bartlettes never had to take the long way to Morris.

Less than 100 years ago, it was a monumental challenge, and even a fight, for members of my family to travel a short distance in winter. Nowadays I can travel much farther, and much faster, through any weather, without anyone standing in my way.

For many folks who call northern Manitoba home though, the challenges my ancestors faced still exist, and my hope is to share their stories with you. Rest assured when we arrive we will also have a truck full of gifts and groceries for our northern friends.

Normally my right-hand man Evel Dave Radey would be riding shotgun with me, but for this trip I'm going to strongly suggest to the producers that our friend and neighbour Jay McLeod come along for the ride. Jay is also Métis, and he lives in a log home, has a massive beard, knows how to walk on snowshoes and is an avid hunter and outdoorsman. I'm no tenderfoot, but having Jay along to make sure we all don't freeze to death is probably a good idea.

Evel Dave and the rest of the Willy's Garage crew certainly won't be on the outside looking in though; they will be paramount in helping us build up a 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee to winter road specs.

Sure, we could have rented a brand new SUV, but what fun would that be?

In the next couple of months we have loads of planning to do, a truck to build and an epic journey to make. I'm not worried though. I have a sneaking feeling that my grandmother will be watching over us through the entire process.

Both seasons of the Willy's Garage television series are currently available to all MTS TV subscribers, and season one is also available for viewing online at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 2, 2011 F3

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