When the voyageurs kick up their heels, we can rejoice that it's a sure sign spring may not be all that far away.
The annual Festival du Voyageur definitely breaks the back of winter.
Voyageurs in trade-blanket overcoats and bright Métis sashes moved among mammoth white snow sculptures Thursday as dozens welcomed Manitoba's premier and Winnipeg's mayor to a press conference for the 44th annual Festival du Voyageur at Fort Gibraltar in Voyageur Park.
"It's the greatest celebration of our history," said Premier Greg Selinger, speaking in English and French in front of the fort's spear log palisade. He was clad in a coat stitched from a blue trade blanket armoured with a chest full of festival medallions.
Listing the Métis and aboriginal peoples alongside the French and English settlers as the foundation of the province, the premier urged visitors to enjoy the 10 days of fiddle music, sleigh rides and dozens of other activities.
The event officially opens to the public tonight with a traditional torchlight parade that winds its way through St. Boniface to Voyageur Park. The festival wraps up Feb. 24.
The theme this year is Find your Place in History.
Admission is $15 a day for adults, $10 for youth and $8 for children. Kids under the age of five are admitted free. A 10-day voyageur pass, good for free or discounted admission to Voyageur Park and other official sites, is $25 for adults, $15 for youth and $10 for children.
Tickets can be purchased at all local Safeway locations, the festival's office at 147 Provencher Blvd. and the Centre culturel franco-manitobain.
The 44th annual festival finds its roots in the courier du bois who ran fur trade routes from Winnipeg to Montreal two centuries ago. But these days the event breaks up the winter.
Winnipeg's mayor joked that he'd already learned one valuable lesson just by showing up: "The next time I have to negotiate with the premier, I will do it at the Festival du Voyageur. He's in a great mood," Sam Katz said.
"I'll still say no," Selinger quipped back. Katz went on to praise the dedication of volunteers who create the 10-day celebration of francophone and Métis culture, its history and music.
The event typically draws 100,000 visitors a year and volunteers are so loyal some present at the kickoff Thursday traced their service back more than 40 years.
Passion pinned to culture brought tears to the eyes of Daniel St. Vincent. He and his family are this year's festival ambassadors, on hand to greet visitors and tell them what the festival means. "If you see us, come around and say hi," he said.
St. Vincent launched the event with an annual gesture: Tossing a cloth-wrapped bundle into the festival's log fire to make the flames snap, crackle and pop.
His voice cracked with emotion as he spoke. "I (choke up) every time," St. Vincent said afterward. "It's an important and humbling thing to do this. We didn't ask for this. We were asked to do this. We live in French at home and our culture is very important to us."
The event wrapped up when the premier presented festival executive director Ginette Lavack Walters with a Diamond Jubilee medal for her public service.
For more information, visit the festival's website at www.heho.ca.
Workshops part of new 2013 events
Topping the list of new events at the Festival du Voyageur this year are apprenticeship workshops to learn Métis beading, sash weaving, flint napping, paper marbling and traditional dance steps from round dancing to square dancing.
Festival visitors can drop in on demonstrations from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. this weekend, including Louis Riel Day, Monday, and the following weekend. In the afternoons, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., the skills are passed on at workshops in Fort Gibraltar.
This year, eight restaurants vie for the title of making the Best French Pea Soup in Winnipeg in a competition featuring celebrity judges. The taste testing and the award, with bragging rights, are set for 1 p.m. on Feb. 24 at Fort Gibraltar.
The festival has also added some new night spots to its list of venues.
Some 115 artists will perform at 10 venues this year.
The new live music locations are Finn's Pub at The Forks, and The Wood at the Norwood Hotel, 112 Marion St.