Festival renews friendships
Crowds for full-scale return of Festival du Voyageur top pre-COVID levels
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As they slurped down pea soup, hundreds of attendees relished the full-scale return of Festival du Voyageur and the beloved cook-off contest that has long marked the sunset of winter celebrations.
Marc Demers and Joanne Lussier-Demers taste-tested their way through the final afternoon of the 10-day-long event on Sunday.
The Franco-Manitoban couple has attended the festival for more than 40 years; it’s where they celebrate their heritage, listen to francophone artists — including their daughter — perform fiddle music, and snack on some of their favourite dishes.
“We are traditionalists, but every soup here is good; I would order them all at a restaurant,” said Marc, surrounded by festival-goers who participated in the final-day pea soup contest — the first of its kind in three years.
“We didn’t see our friends a lot (early on in the pandemic) so now, — this is a gathering where the French community comes out and it’s a small community so you basically know, if not most people, a lot of the people so — you can renew friendships again,” he added.
COVID-19 concerns prompted the organizers to host a virtual francophone music and cultural festival in 2021, followed by a hybrid edition last year.
Given many events have yet to see attendance meet pre-pandemic levels since the province ended virtually all public health orders last year, Darrel Nadeau said his team is overjoyed that their daily visitor counts exceeded 2020 numbers.
“This shows that this is a beloved Manitoba event that people remember, even three years later, and people continue to discover,” the festival’s executive director said.
The 2023 event included a record number of 200 performers, new Indigenous art installations, and bigger snow sculptures — some of which are interactive and allow visitors to climb atop the six-metre-tall structures — than ever before.
The festival also doubled its indoor tent capacity to tackle crowding this year and has kept timed ticketing intact, a pandemic takeaway, to limit outdoor lineups.
Nadeau said the changes have been welcomed and the smiling faces he’s witnessed across Whittier Park and other satellite sites are what make all the work worthwhile.
“That’s where we get our energy from, that’s what we work a whole year for — to see people enjoying themselves, discovering francophone, Métis and First Nations culture,” he said, adding the festival donated 500 tickets to Ukrainian newcomer families to experience the grounds this year.
The activities in and around Fort Gibraltar were a welcome distraction for the Rezniks, who fled Ukraine in the summertime. Father Artem Reznik said he wanted to take his daughters to the winter festival to learn more about the cultural traditions and foods in the place they now call home.
Lillian Woodman, 6, did not hesitate when asked about the highlight of her visit to Whittier Park with her family. “The soup!” she exclaimed.
Free samples lured hundreds to Fort Gibraltar’s Great Hall and resulted in visitors lining up outside in sub-zero temperatures before entering the cabin in which seven restaurants handed out cups of their respective renditions of pea soup, with unique ingredients ranging from sumac to croutons.
“Whether it be listening to the bands or the soup contest, or admiring the sculptures, it’s just nice to be around other people,” Brett Woodman said.
“An event like this is especially nice because it’s mostly outside and aside from the soup-eating contest, you’re not shoulder to shoulder very much so it is nice to space a little bit still and just be safe in that regard.”
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.