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Winnipeg... the Aren’t We Good City

It takes a special kind of angst to live here

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It always feels good to be back in Winnipeg.

JESSICA BURTNICK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

It always feels good to be back in Winnipeg. Photo Store

Do-good white people. That’s been the buzz around these parts for the past week. A century or so ago, those words may have formed a compliment. Sort of like the white man’s burden — a phrase coined and elevated to nobleness by Victorian-era poet Rudyard Kipling.

However, as expressed in an email by Eric Robinson, those words are no compliment.

But this column isn’t about the deputy premier’s comment.

Nor is it about the drummed-up outrage (imagine if WE said something like that about ABORIGINALS...) that greeted the comment.

Nor is it about trying to figure out why Robinson would even think using a burlesque show as a fundraiser for a women’s shelter is a bad idea. Some of your co-workers probably do burlesque. Most women find it empowers them.

It isn’t even about the irony of ironies that Pamela Fox, the woman who sponsored the fundraiser, does not fit the profile of do-good white person at all.

No, what this column is about is the joys and sorrows and frustrations of living in Winnipeg, the Aren’t We Good City.

Winnipeg has an overriding desire to be loved, to be respected, to be admired. This need for daily affirmation is Winnipeg’s burden — a burden that it has carried ever since it lost its status as Canada’s third-largest city to Vancouver in 1920.

We’re like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, eternally muttering, "I coulda been a contender."

Just before the whole do-good-white-people story broke, my family and I were travelling in Nova Scotia.

Lunenberg one day. The Historic Properties in Halifax the next. Louisbourg. Black Brook Beach.

Non-stop gorging on history, colour, seafaring lore, lobster and Alexander Keith’s pale ale.

At one point, maybe while driving along the west coast of Cape Breton as the sun set over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I said: "I want to move here. I am getting tired of the Prairies. I am getting tired of Winnipeg."

There was silence in the car.

"I mean, really. Look around us. We have mountains meeting the sea and lighthouses and romantic harbours and fishing boats. We have setting out on St. Margaret’s Bay at 5 in the morning with a cousin who is a real fisherman and watching the sun rise over Peggy’s Cove.

"What’s our equivalent in Manitoba? Hitching a ride on a combine? Taking a drive past the Perimeter to see some decrepit old grain elevator? Touring a pig farm?"

At first, it felt good, uttering those words. A minute later, it felt not so good. It felt scary, like renouncing one’s childhood religion.

"I’m sorry G... I mean Winnipeg," I wanted to say. "I didn’t mean it. Take me back."

And that is the problem. Somehow, in the past few decades, Winnipeg has been turned into a religion. We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. We’ve put on the rose-coloured glasses (except for the haters, who apparently had an allergic reaction to the Kool-Aid).

Somebody moves to the city and tells people how much they like the place, we do a story about them. We pick an unsuspecting tourist family and wine them and dine them and trot them around to our attractions (The zoo! The Forks! The IKEA!) and then wait expectantly for them to compose psalms of praise for our city.

Countless bloggers rant about how this city is some sort of best-kept secret.

How can it be a secret if we never shut up about it?

When my family and I arrived back in Winnipeg, it wasn’t long before all was well once again. Ours is a forgiving God, er, city. During last week’s heat wave, we spent a very pleasant day at Winnipeg Beach, an easy drive from the city. There was a wind off the lake and waves were crashing on the shore. It was almost like being on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

As we drove home, combines were sailing across the fields. The swaths they cut stretched way past the horizon. The setting sun turned the stubble into a million shades of red and brown and gold.

The next evening, we sat at an outdoor bar at The Forks drinking pint after pint of Alexander Keith’s pale ale and watching the multicoloured faces of Winnipeg revel in a rare, elusive, perfect summer’s eve.

It made us feel pretty good.

Every time we return to Winnipeg after being away for a while and falling in love with another part of the world, that is what happens. We always end up feeling pretty good to be back.

Winnipeg is home, be it ever so humble...

Then Saturday’s paper brought news that plans for a 28-floor highrise near Portage and Main are shaping up. "This will be a game-changer," Gary Bachman raves in the story. "This is a massive deal for Winnipeg." He has to talk that way. He is a real estate agent, trying to sell condos in the building. The rest of us don’t have to talk that way.

If it gets built, it will be pretty cool. Same for the other marvellous downtown edifices now being pitched. But even if, improbably, they each go up, they are not going to be game-changers. Don’t get me wrong. It will be nice to have them, but nobody’s ever going to mistake us for Manhattan. Or even Cleveland.

No matter how many glossy brochures we put out and catchy slogans we come up with, we’re never going to have the world beating a path to our door. That door was slammed shut around the turn of the last century. We’ve got our charms. The folk festival is great, Folklorama is pretty cool and Grand Beach is awesome for four months of the year. But that doesn’t make us Hawaii.

Sure, Winnipeg is One Great City (a slogan that was replaced a couple of years ago with Winnipeg: the Heart of the Continent, which is basically a statement of fact). We’re so great, we think we have to bribe people to live downtown.

We’re so great, we keep trying to come up with the magic, politically motivated megaproject (Portage Place, the MTS Centre, the United Way building, the WRHA building, the Youth for Christ building) that will transform Portage Avenue and Main Street into something so great, the world will want to flock there.

Come on, people. This is Winnipeg.

I prefer the belligerent tone of an even earlier slogan: Love me, love my Winnipeg. You wanna make something of that, pal?

Winnipeg is not a religion. It is not a god (or, as the haters believe, a devil).

It’s just Winnipeg. Take it or leave it.

I say it is time we stopped putting so much pressure on our city. Maybe it doesn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. Maybe it just wants a chance to find its own way. And maybe that way is going to be greater than any bureaucrat or politician can imagine.

The Blue Bombers are the perfect symbol of Winnipeg. A gloried past. An angst-ridden present. For years now, at the start of every season, we’ve got one of the strongest teams ever.

Then they play their first game.

We’ve got quarterbacks stacked up who are going to be the starters who leads us to salvation.

Then they throw their first interception.

We somehow manage to win a game or two, and suddenly, it’s Swaggerville.

Come on. It’s Winnipeg.

Instead of hyperbole and great expectations, why don’t we just try to get back to letting Winnipeg’s strengths emerge naturally? We’ve got the regenerative power of the North End. The wisdom and strength of our aboriginals. The pluckiness of people who know that if anything good is going to happen in this burg, they’ve got to do it themselves.

That attitude gave us stuff like Royal Winnipeg Ballet, vibrant theatres and some of the best rock musicians ever.

It turned us, for a time, into the third-biggest city in Canada. It gave us wheat kings and pretty things.

It gave us a social conscience. Being in the middle of nowhere, we learned to look after our own. And now we look after thousands of immigrants who come here for a better life.

It even gave us the do-good impulse.

It is unfortunate that the do-good issue has been overtaken by allegations of racism. There are ignorant do-gooders who don’t always understand the impact of their actions. Look at residential schools. Serious issues need serious discussion.

They need people such as Pamela Fox and Eric Robinson and others who truly want to do good coming together to devise the best way of doing so.

But that’s unlikely to happen now, because the whole issue has been whitewashed by one man’s unfortunate words, and one city’s unfortunate reaction to them.

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