Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

My place is the Prairies

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Part way through a roots tour of the Prairies last summer with my daughter and granddaughter I blurted out: "I think I really like the Prairies."

"Of course you do," said my daughter, who lives in Ottawa. "You talk about them all the time. Why don't you come right out and say you love them?"

"OK," I said. "I love them."

And I do. My affair with the Prairies didn't hit me like a burst of young passion. It snuck up on me.

A gentle breeze on a hot day; a First Nations circle of rocks on a high bluff; a field of bright yellow canola under a clear blue sky; a glass of red wine with friends on a patio; the far-off sound of an engine shunting box cars; horses thundering up a dusty draw; softly falling snow at night on a street with stately elms -- a host of small things that make you feel at home.

A reason I was slow to realize that the Prairies had hooked me was that, even though I was born in Winnipeg, I lived in Toronto and Ottawa for 40 years. I've been back in Winnipeg for 10 years -- years I've spent discovering joys I ignored when I was younger.

Having lived there, I know what many easterners think of the Prairies. They're flat. That simply means they don't know where to look. The Rockies are macho -- a long line of body builders showing off their bumps. The Prairies are coquettish but if you are patient, you can find some spectacular spots.

The glaciers flattened the Prairies, but when they melted the massive runoff created striking valleys such as the Assiniboine and the Pembina. They left some interesting high spots such as Riding Mountain and Saskatchewan's Cypress Hills.

Many tourists blast along the flat TransCanada in southern Saskatchewan, not knowing that a few miles north is the Qu'Appelle Valley, a massive sunken garden with steep, wooded sides, green pastures, lakes and a doughty river.

The Prairies' most impressive physical feature is the sky. It surrounds you on every side. You begin to notice humongous cloud formations, dark and brooding or white and puffy.

At night, you can see the great dome of the universe, a sight that either delights you because you feel free from people pressing in on you or makes you feel insignificant.

Easterners seem to think the Prairies are as dry as month-old bread. Nonsense. One of our biggest problems is controlling water, and we have some of the world's largest freshwater lakes.

The Prairies' sometimes-harsh climate has made the people here tough, but friendly -- people who recognize the benefits of co-operation and are farsighted.

I learned that travelling with my aunt. I was a city kid and didn't look much beyond the hood of the car. "Oh, look," she'd say, "the Findlays are home." I couldn't see a thing. She was looking to the horizon and saw some laundry flapping on a line. Our best people still look to the horizon.

And what a history we have in the Prairies. In other parts of Canada, history happened to people; in the West people made history happen. Just take a stroll through Winnipeg's famous North End. Notice all the halls dating from around 1912 -- the institutions of such people as Jewish radicals, Ukrainian intellectuals, Poles, Germans and others from Europe. All of them impacted our diverse society.

Many of the old halls have been taken over by resurgent aboriginal groups or recent immigrants from Africa and Asia.

Many eastern rural towns are museums like Almonte, just north of Ottawa. One of the world's largest woolen mills in the 1800s has been converted into a seniors' residence. A merry river still races past the stone building, but no wheels turn. Contrast that with Steinbach, Winkler and Morden who are pushing their way into world markets.

Mostly, what I love about Winnipeg, the West's first metropolis, is that the Queen Mother City has some distinguished old families and, as a result, a rich cultural life. We don't have to import talent anymore; we can get a world-class performance from our own.

Everyone who wants to have any kind of happiness and self-esteem should have a place. My place is the Prairies.

Tom Ford is editor of The Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 19, 2011 A13

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