Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bonhomme more than mascot

Winter carnival expresses something deep in Quebec culture

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BONHOMME Carnaval, mascot of the Quebec Winter Carnival, Canada's largest pre-Lenten celebration, is turning 60 this year, meaning he is old enough to pack it in and start drawing early on his Quebec Pension Plan benefits if he wants.

Fat chance of that, though. Le dude Bonhomme has got his second wind.

Like the carnival itself, he has rebounded through the typical ups and downs of mid-life. Feeling underappreciated back in 2004, Bonhomme went out and joined a union -- Local 503 of the Travailleurs unis de l'alimentation, affiliated with the Federation des travailleurs du Quebec. In fact, it was the two dozen men who wear the Bonhomme outfit who unionized -- and who abruptly left the union two years later in 2006, unhappy with the experience.

And then came the Maclean's affair. In 2010, Canada's national newsmagazine put a picture of Bonhomme on its cover to illustrate a story about how Quebec was the most corrupt province in Canada. Bonhomme was depicted holding a suitcase overflowing with cash.

Nobody at Maclean's realized Bonhomme was a trademark property of a municipal winter carnival, and not some folkloric mascot emblematic of Quebec society more broadly. Maclean's owner, Rogers Communications, was forced to negotiate an out-of-court sttlement.

The fact Maclean's didn't realize who Bonhomme really was reflects the ongoing existence of a cultural two solitudes in Canada. But inside of Quebec, including English Quebec, there is no doubt who this smiling snowman mascot is, and what he represents. He is truly a beloved figure.

I saw this very clearly for myself last February, during the opening weekend of the carnival, which every year spans three weekends over two weeks before Lent. This year, the carnival opened yesterday and runs to Feb. 16.

I was there at the opening in front of the ice castle on the Plains of Abraham when Bonhomme was introduced on stage. Bonhomme proceeded to do a high kick with his right leg, a move he is known for, and the outdoor crowd in the minus-20 degree cold let out a roar of approval.

But if Bonhomme has got his groove back, so, too, has the carnival itself, which has recovered from a slow and difficult management transition over the past decade. The overwhelming consensus is the carnival is now bigger and better than ever.

It has, for one thing, been reconfigured to appeal more to families. The hub of carnival activity these days is the east end of the Plains of Abraham, up near the Citadel, where a little carnival midway is set up. At the centre of it is the ice castle, where opening and closing ceremonies are held.

Around it, in all directions, are ice slides, snow sculptures, outdoor games for adults, rides for children, hot tubs popular with young adults, outdoor food kiosks, indoor tent bars, marching bands, and horse-drawn sleighs that take visitors out to the west end of the Plains, where there is a skating oval (made with artificial ice this year, for the first time) and a snowshoeing and cross-country skiing circuit.

What surprised me was just how much there is to see and do elsewhere in the city.

On the first Saturday of last year's event, I went to the Musée national des beaux arts du Quebec in the morning to see an outdoor exhibition featuring ice in architectural design. Later, I had a choice between a David Suzuki lecture on climate change at the Musée de la civilisation and an arts-and-craft demonstration of the old Quebec craft of finger-weaving at the Chateau Frontenac. I went to the Frontenac, because I wanted to see how those iconic Quebec ceintures flechees (arrowhead belts) are woven.

I saw a lot of out-of-province visitors -- Ontario high-school kids on school trips, numerous Japanese tour groups, a group of HEC Montreal foreign students from Singapore, among others. And I heard European languages at the Frontenac I didn't even recognize. Among the American tourists I saw were a good number of young same-sex couples. As for English, it is widely heard.

At last year's snow-sculpting competition, I met one of the leading competitors, Donald Watt of Yellowknife, Yukon. Talking to him during one of his breaks, I noticed the moisture on his moustache had frozen, and little icicles were dangling from the hairs above his mouth as he spoke.

The sky was a perfect blue, and the snow on the Plains a perfect white. Behind us, the Titans de Quebec, a drum corps consisting of local Quebec City youth, was marching through the carnival midway, filling the cold air with warm ceremonial notes of festive cheer.

I asked Watt how he got into snow sculpting.

"When I was a little boy," he said, "I was watching this National Film Board documentary one day on black-and-white television. It was about people in Quebec City, and how they liked to make sculptures out of snow and put them out onto their front yards. And I said to my dad, who was this big cigar-smoking guy, 'I think I'd like to do that one day.' And he said, "You can do anything you want."

And so Watt was, all these years later, fulfilling a dream. If the Quebec Winter Carnival is the biggest and best pre-Lenten celebration in Canada, it's because Watt and all the other carnival competitors and visitors recognize winter in Canada is something that can, and should, be celebrated.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 E2

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