Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Why Winnipeg?

An expat returns home, explores the ties that bind him to his birthplace

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SOME emotions can be hard to describe in words. Love is one of them.

You might say "love illuminates me" or "love feels like being on a magical roller-coaster" or maybe even "it makes me nauseous."

Love can conjure up intense feelings, especially if a roller-coaster is involved. My love of Winnipeg, where I grew up, is illuminating. It’s also subtle, not fleeting — there’s no nausea involved — it’s unconditional, and it comforts me to the core because it fortifies my sense of place in this world and life.

My home base is now in Quebec, but I have been back living temporarily in Winnipeg with my wife and son for the past two years. We came to help my mother care for my ailing father. He passed away peacefully last year, and in July we return to Quebec.

I think it’s very cool that our son, Jyoti, has been attending my alma mater, Brock Corydon School. In fact, his wonderful class and teacher inspired this article. The March 22, 2014 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press included an article by Gordon Sinclair Jr. titled Accentuate the positive: Teacher, class have only good things to say about our city.

The article chronicled his visit to the Brock Corydon grades 5-6 class of dynamic, Winnipeg-loving teacher Susan Pereles. For the past four years, her classroom has been an incubator for mini-Winnipeg ambassadors.

Each year, they do a project about positive aspects of Winnipeg. Jyoti is one of the lucky students in Pereles’ Winnipeg love-in class. During Sinclair’s visit, they had a lively discussion about complaints that money spent on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights would be better spent fixing potholes. Jyoti’s wise words quoted in the article made me feel warm inside: "No one is going to come from halfway around the world to look at our roads."

The icing on the cake for Pereles and her class was a thoughtful visit on May 6 from Winnipeg Police Service Chief Devon Clunis. He wanted to meet this class that is focusing on the positive. Pereles later recounted to me Clunis had insisted on keeping his meeting with the class despite an extremely stressful day personally dealing with fallout from the cancellation of a 911 call warning prior to a fatal shooting at a nightclub. He even brought gifts of water bottles for each student and a framed, personalized certificate of appreciation for Pereles. What a powerful example of the positive spirit of Winnipeg and the people who live that spirit every day.

I’ve been happily promoting Winnipeg all my life wherever I go. While attending McGill University in Montreal 22 years ago, I wrote an article titled Dispelling Myths About… Winnipeg for the law faculty student newspaper, the Quid Novi.

It was republished in the University of Manitoba student newspaper the Manitoban, where a friend was an editor at the time and suggested it would be a good fit. Writing that article was a therapeutic exercise for me. My McGill classmates were from all over the place, and when meeting someone new, an obvious question was: "Where are you from?" To my response of "Winnipeg," I regularly received snidely playful attempts at jokes involving stereotypes about winter, cold, snow, mosquitoes, flat prairies. Sound familiar?

I wrote the article to move folks beyond those tepid stereotypes — though I must admit this past winter was, um, rather long and cold — and expose them to some of the true glory of my Winnipeg. There’s not enough space to print the full article, but here’s a taste of how it went: I was born and raised in Winnipeg. Of this fact I am immensely proud. Be assured, I am going to explain to you from whence my pride stems, but first I must ask you a question. This question, though seemingly innocent, has evolved into a rhetorical question that inevitably produces smiles and shivers.

The question: When I say "Winnipeg," what is the first thing that pops into your mind? Let me coincide with your thoughts by presenting a scenario I have experienced time and again in this life. The setting is anywhere but Winnipeg and involves myself (the Winnipegger) meeting a non-Winnipegger (who has never been to Winnipeg): Non-Winnipegger: "So, where do you come from?" Me: "I come from Winnipeg, Man., the gateway to the West and the probable centre of the Universe." Non-Winnipegger: "Winnipeg, hmmm, yeah, it’s really cold there isn’t it?" Or perhaps "Winnipeg!? Wow! How do you manage to survive the winters there?!"

Sometimes even "Winnipeg? Isn’t that where your skin freezes if you go outside in the winter?" Me: "Yes, that would be Winnipeg; of course, true Winnipeggers only worry about frozen skin when they roll around naked in the snow for more than two hours at a time."

AAUUUGH!! Go ahead, admit it. When I said Winnipeg, you shivered instinctively and had a vision of fur-bundled people scurrying between snow houses carved out of an otherwise barren Prairie tundra. That vision is a hogwash, loaded myth that is about to be dispelled...

Part of being a Winnipegger involves being a Manitoban and being a Manitoban is a state of mind. The Manitoba licence plate reads "Friendly Manitoba." This is no myth. Having lived in the province for most of my lifetime, I am somewhat qualified to make sweeping generalizations about the place. As a pedestrian or cyclist, your right-of-way is respected by motorists, sometimes even by taxi drivers.

Bus drivers will offer directions without grimacing, and many may even throw in best wishes to your health during the holiday season. No joke. I was once on a bus where the driver greeted each new person with a jovial "Welcome aboard, Merry Christmas!" and then as we dismounted he would call out "Have a Happy New Year!"

Though some people thought him a little crazy, they left the bus smiling. Manitobans enjoy smiling. They do it sincerely and without provocation. Why, you ask? Why not? What does a frown or a non-expression have over a smile? Nothing, except that it tells the world to bug off. Smiles, on the other hand, breed happiness and optimism and contentment. However, to smile without holding such feelings is an exercise in superficiality.

Therein lies the secret to the Manitoba state of mind. To smile with sincerity, one must be content with life. If Winnipeggers, being Manitobans, are smiling all the time, they must be content with life... To experience Winnipeg fully is to revel in diversity.

Born of the fur trade and western settlement in the mid-19th century, Winnipeg is now home to over 650,000 people originating from all corners of the planet. The city is a patchwork of ethnic communities that are Canadian while being distinctly French, Ukranian, Italian, Vietnamese, Portugese, Chilean, Polish, Indian, Chinese, Ethiopian… Proof of this can be found in the fact that Winnipeg boasts the highest per capita ratio of restaurants in North America. There is even a Mennonite restaurant called D’8 Schtove that serves divine plumimoos...

Winnipeg is relatively flat, but it is not barren; it is very green. There are parks galore and more golf courses and elm trees (180,000, elm trees that is) than any other major urban centre in North America. Those who are turned off by the flatness of Winnipeg have obviously never experienced a shimmering, red-gold Prairie sun setting over fields of mustard seed for as far as the eye can see. There’s beauty and power in that sort of space...

What more can I say? Actually lots, but I think I’ve told you enough to show you why Winnipeggers smile on a regular basis. Their lives are laid-back and isolated from the hustle and bustle of larger centres, yet filled with the stimulation and variety of the world.

Not bad for a place that’s known for being cold. It’s a fact that cold myths die hard, so if this one is not dead, I hope at least it’s been dispelled to a warmer clime. Some of the details have changed over the past 20 years, and obviously there is oodles more to add now...

FortWhyte Alive, Althea Guiboche (the Bannock Lady), the rights museum, the Jets, the Goldeyes, the murals, new festivals, restaurants, parks, visual artists, writers, musicians... but the hearty spirit is the same. À la prochaine, Winnipeg, mon amour.

Winnipegger Jay Sinha is co-owner of LifeWithoutPlastic.com

 

 

 

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