Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I'm leaving Winnipeg -- so sue me

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Joe Bryksa / Winnipeg Free Press

A view of downtown Winnipeg at dawn

"NOBODY moves away from Winnipeg, especially to Toronto, and escapes condemnation," muses Yolandi, the narrator of Miriam Toews’ terrifying and hilarious new novel All My Puny Sorrows.

"It’s like the opposite of Welcome Wagon. It’s like leaving the Crips for the Bloods."

If so, I am doubly doomed. This summer I plan to move to Toronto for the second time.

The first time, in 1975, I left for a bigger and better job in journalism than I could aspire to in Winnipeg.

Two decades later, I accomplished what I had once found unthinkable and returned to Winnipeg for just such a job. It didn't last long, but the subsequent job did.

A couple of years ago, my wife retired; now I am about to, and we are heading back east.

The allure of Toronto is not just its size, variety and prosperity, but the fact it is home to family.

So sue me. Or condemn me. I'm in good company.

Toews herself slipped out of Winnipeg a few years ago and now lives in (your epithet here) the Centre of the Universe, Hogtown, the Big Smoke.

Moving away can open a person to the rich world of the imaginary views of Winnipeg, the exotic confluences of memory and imagination that are my favourite aspect of the city where I was born.

Winnipeg has an artistic existence, in truth many existences and expressions, springing from but distinct from its physical reality. The overwhelming physicality of our isolated, cold and sometimes hot flood-plain location demands interpretation. Daily life just can't be all there is about this place.

Yolandi, for example, mocks Winnipeg with some affection as "Muddy Waters, the Paris of the Northwest Passage."

Some of the most extravagant expressions of this imagination are Guy Maddin's films, especially My Winnipeg.

In The Republic of Love, my favourite Carol Shields novel, daily life provokes radio host Tom Avery to blow hot and cold on his city.

"Tom wonders why he stays here. The climate gets him down, and so does the grid of streets, bridges, shopping centres, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings -- at times the punishing municipal familiarity of these fixtures causes him to lean forward on the steering wheel of his car and whimper."

But then the trees grow back the leaves the cankerworms gobbled up, transforming this place and Tom's view of it.

"He loves this light-filled city in the same unarticulated way he loves the throwaway intimacies of Safeway cashiers, in the wordless way he expresses his most passionate and painful moments -- in screeches and howls, moans and cries, the disjointed, valleyed vowel sounds of aeiiii and oweeee that mend the effects of weather and repair the damage he does to himself and to others."

One more imaginary view, from North End Love Songs by Katherena Vermette, for which she won the 2013 Governor General's Award for Poetry. Rereading this book allows the calm procession of simple images to grow into something striking, potent.

In the first verse of Family, Vermette imagines the planted trees that dominate our city as a human web:


elms around us

like aunties



all different

but with the same skin


Although those trees will not move with me, they will persist in the stories I tell myself about Winnipeg. Imagine that.


Duncan McMonagle plans to retire in May from teaching journalism at Red River College.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2014 A1


Updated on Sunday, April 13, 2014 at 12:28 PM CDT: Adds Winnipeg slide show

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