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Fixing the food of the Folk Fest for 40 years

Mixing social activism and cooking

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Warmth and kindness radiate almost immediately after meeting Harry Paine.

Also evident is the 80-year-old's dedication to a life of social activism, as he sports a T-shirt proclaiming: "Stop bitching, start a revolution." Paine's dedication and love for his fellow man have undoubtedly touched and inspired many.

This year, the Winnipeg Folk Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary. Not many people can say they were there when it all began -- but Paine can. He still recalls when festival founder Mitch Podolak approached him for help with starting up a folk festival in Winnipeg. "I said to him, you're crazy!" he laughs.

Paine recounts, "It was in the mid-'70s period and Mitch had a small group of friends situated in different parts of the country. Many of them, like me, had a long experience in social activism and saw folk music as being sort of an instrument of change."

Paine firmly believes there is a difference between folk and other genres.

"My feeling of folk music is that much of it comes out of the heart of people. Pop music is sort of written to make a buck, but folk music, it expresses the feelings, the loves, the hates, the oppression, the experiences of ordinary people."

When asked if he plays a musical instrument, Paine laughs and exclaims, "Oh, hell no!" Paine's contribution to the Winnipeg Folk Festival for the last 40 years has been his work organizing the backstage kitchen, which helps feed the performers, guests and volunteers. Nowadays, the kitchen is known as La Cuisine, but 40 years ago, it was aptly named Harry's Eats.

Paine says the philosophy behind the backstage kitchen was that it was imperative to treat performers well, including giving them good home-cooked meals -- sometimes of steak, barons of beef or lamb shanks. He says many musicians travel on the road for days, so the festival organizers believed good nourishment would inspire performers to play their hearts out onstage. Paine recalls hearing many times over the years musicians made it a stipulation in their contract that, "Harry would be cooking." There are even songs floating around to this day from musicians who performed at the Winnipeg Folk Festival singing about Harry's Eats.

"I've been told I'm a pretty good cook," Paine says with a smile.

The birth of his cooking skills and social activism can be pinpointed to a particular period in his childhood. He lived in Britain when he was seven, and his mother, who taught him to cook, contracted pernicious anemia and rheumatoid arthritis. For four months a year, she had to stay in bed, and Paine, an only child whose father was in the military, would have to do the cooking and cleaning.

"I really appreciate that period of my life," says Paine. "I think it contributed to my sensitivity to other people, my being a feminist for instance, and being part of my community and contributing to my community, I think it all goes back to that part of my life."

The Second World War was also raging around his home near England's southeast coast. He says the war deeply affected him, recalling the constant overhead flying of bombers and hearing machine-guns close by.

"I think when you grow up in that kind of environment, you develop a kind of real closeness with your fellow human beings."

Paine's contributions to the community are innumerable. In 1987, he quit his job as a general contractor and plumber in order to work as one of the founders of the West End Cultural Centre with the hopes of bringing a little bit of the folk festival to the community year round. He still works for various causes, including advocating for seniors rights and raising awareness of elder abuse.

Paine can be found at this year's Winnipeg Folk Festival, which takes place from July 10-14 at Birds Hill Park, where he has been for the last 40 years -- the backstage kitchen. He recalls when the festival started 40 years ago, eight volunteers fed 360 people. Nowadays, 200 volunteers work to feed more than 6,900 people during the festival. Paine helps teach volunteers cooking skills and makes sure the kitchen runs smoothly.

Paine's life philosophy is straightforward. "I really believe we are put on this Earth to make the world a better place," he says. "If you can go on to the next world knowing that you have made the world a better place, then your life has been worthwhile. I think I've accomplished that. But I'm not resting just yet, I still have lots to do."


If you know a special volunteer who strives to make his or her community a better place to live, please contact Carolyn Shimmin-Bazak at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2013 A13

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