As 2020 begins, we look back at some of the stories that made the news in 2019.
January: Harris family recovers from fire
The Harris family, of Oak Bluff, lost their rented house and all their possessions in an early morning fire on Dec. 20 that started in the garage.
Gerald Harris had burns on both hands, but was relieved that all eight people in the house at62 Park Dr. made it out safely.
"We had just moved in," Gerald said. "We lost everything. I even lost my wallet."
He and wife Christina, daughter Mikayla, 18 and Meagan, 14, family friend Mariana Rempel, and in-laws Linda and Gary Kruger and brother-in-law Travis Kruger were all in the house when the fire broke out. The Krugers had arrived from northwestern Ontario the day before for a holiday visit. The Harris’ third daughter Madison, 17, wasn’t at home.
Gerald said he was the last one up that night and was in the kitchen getting a snack about 1 a.m. when he noticed smoke coming from under the laundry room door. The laundry room was also connected to the attached garage. He was about to open the door when it blew off its hinges, sending him falling backward. He and Christina were able to wake all the others in the house with some leaving through the front door and others through the back door. Once outside, they realized that the garage was entirely engulfed in flames.
By the time RM of Macdonald firefighters arrived about half an hour later, the house was also in flames and it was too late to be able to save anything.
The Harris’ two cats were killed in the fire.
Despite their loss, the family managed to find some joy over the Christmas season thanks to the generosity of fellow members of Springs Church in Winnipeg, other friends and complete strangers who had provided them with shelter, food, gift cards and other items in early January.
"It’s been amazing the help we’ve had," Christina said. "We would like to express our thanks to Oak Bluff."
February: STARS helipad opens at Portage District General Hospital
STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service) started flying from a Transport Canada certified helipad at Portage District General Hospital that opened on Jan. 22.
STARS is a non-profit organization that operates around the clock from bases in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, providing fast response, on-site health care services and patient transportation when accidents occur or help is needed outside major city limits. As well as responding to accidents, STARS is used to transport patients from smaller to larger hospitals.
Portage Hospital executive director Noreen Shirtliff said transport times to tertiary care has been significantly decreased which means specialized care from medical specialists will be received faster by patients. Prior to the opening of the helipad STARS was landing in Southport, and patients were transported to the Portage hospital by EMS. The patient experience has now improved with fewer transfers required.
In its 2017-18 fiscal year STARS flew 35 missions out of Portage.
"We were very excited to have that helipad open," said STARS spokesperson Chad Saxon, adding that it reduces a patient’s travel time by about 30 minutes. The flight from the Portage hospital to the helipad atop the Health Sciences Centre or to a site near St. Boniface Hospital takes about 20 minutes.
He added that STARS has provided service for two medical flights since the helipad opened.
Money to pay for the helipad’s construction cost of approximately $345,000 was raised by the Portage District General Hospital Foundation through a lottery and other fundraising efforts.
March: Former PCI administrator, coach honoured
Mark Diboll, a former Portage Collegiate Institute administrator and coach, was inducted into the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame in the Builder category.
Diboll, who retired from his position as vice-principal in December 2017, received his award at the MHSAA’s Hall of Fame reception on May 11.
"I’m so grateful that people thought enough of me to nominate me," Diboll said. Having been a MHSAA board member for years, he knows many of the others who have been inducted to the Hall of Fame and said he’s honoured to have his name join theirs.
After moving from Thompson to Portage la Prairie, Diboll saw an opportunity to create a football field at PCI when the school property was being redesigned. He organized fundraising and formed a team to start in 2007. He still actively supports the PCI Trojans.
He also worked to restart a boys’ hockey program at PCI and to expand the school’s weight room. He helped establish academies for volleyball, hockey, and basketball, as well as building connections for athletes to compete beyond high school.
April: Portage Regional Library celebrates 50 years
From drawers of paper file cards to online book requests, the Portage la Prairie Regional Library has evolved over the past 50 years.
New head librarian Richard Bee said the library continues to play an important role within the community, in part because it offers a variety of free services to regional residents.
"It has a relevance within a community," he said.
Bee was hired last December when former head librarian Percy Gregoire-Voskamp retired after 20 years with the library.
The Portage library celebrated its 50th nniversary this year. While libraries kept by local churches date back to the mid-1850s, the Local Council of Women founded the first true lending library in 1920 in a community club room and hired Mrs. W.W. Miller as librarian. After that, the library moved into several locations including the Billy Richardson House on 3rd St. SW, the former and current City Halls, and former Bank of Montreal and Manitoba Hydro buildings, before settling into its current location at 40B Royal Rd. N in 1999. It was designated a regional library 15 years ago.
A committee of four volunteers was tasked with organizing anniversary celebratory events. The committee included Patty Case, current library board vice-chair, Patricia Brown, library board member, Dorothy Morrish, former board member, and Pat Calder, former assistant librarian. Events were held with community members invited to help celebrate the 50th anniversary.
May: Handing over the reins of Manitoba Maid
Joyce and Doug Livingston followed in Paulette and Sam Crampton’s footsteps as they enetered their first year as owners and operators of Crampton’s Manitoba Maid.
The Livingstons, who live close to Starbuck, purchased the 30-year-old jam, jelly, marmalade, fruit syrup and topping business from the Cramptons last September. Joyce was newly retired from a career in health care specializing in rehabilitation for stroke patients, and Doug faced a health issue that somewhat compromised his ability to keep farming as he’d done all his life.
"We rented out our land this year," Doug said. "I’ve gone from greasy hands to freshly washed, squeaky clean hands."
Another factor that played into the Livingstons’ decision to buy the Cramptons’ business was their work on cultivating haskap bushes on two acres of their property. Haskap (also known as honeyberry) is a purple-coloured berry that originated in Siberia and Japan. The Livingstons heard about it a few years ago through research being conducted at the University of Saskatchewan.
"It’s a superfruit, high in antioxidants," Joyce said. "We’re really pumped about the haskap."
While haskap is grown more widely in Quebec, Ontario and Saskatchewan, it is still relatively unknown in Manitoba. The Cramptons had first expressed a wish to buy haskap berries from the Livingstons, then the business deal evolved and the Livingstons became the buyers, purchasing the company.
The Livingstons were very thankful for the support they continue to receive from the Cramptons.
"Sam and Paulette are both helping us. They want us to be successful," Joyce said.
June: Operation Ezra Farming Project takes root in SFX
Rows of tiny seedlings planted in the RM of St. Francois Xavier in early May represented more than food for Yazidi refugees.
As these plants took root and grew, so too did the hopes and dreams of the recent newcomers to Winnipeg from Iraq.
The community farming project is a partnership between Operation Ezra and Charleswood United Church (4820 Roblin Blvd.) to help feed 54 government-sponsored newcomer families.
Operation Ezra is a Jewish-led coalition of multi-faith organizations that has sponsored Yazidi refugees to come to Winnipeg since 2015. The Yazidi people predominantly come from the Mosul region in northern Iraq and have faced centuries of persecution. Beginning in August 2014, the Yazidis were violently targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"They want to be productive and provide for themselves and their families," said Operation Ezra volunteer co-ordinator Michel Aziza, who estimated that about 250 people would be helped directly through this farming project.
On May 28, the final rows of seedlings were planted on about six acres of land situated near the Assiniboine River. The land was donated by Charleswood United Church members Gloria and Bo Wohlers and was formerly Shelmerdine’s tree nursery until severe flooding in 2011 destroyed most of the trees on the site.
Bo said he read an article about Operation Ezra’s potato project, in which potatoes were grown on donated land near Portage la Prairie last year. In the article, Aziza expressed the wish to find land close to Winnipeg for a farming project this year to help provide Yazidi newcomers with food.
"Last year we grew about 700 pounds of potatoes and it will be 10,000 to 12,000 pounds this year," Aziza said. "Whatever is excess will be sold."
July: Whoop & Hollar Folk Fest faces challenge
Whoop & Hollar Folk Festival organizers scrambled to find a solution to an unexpected problem in early July.
This year’s festival was supposed to run from the evening of Fri., Aug. 23 to the evening of Sun., Aug. 25, but it appeared that it might have had to be scaled back to a one-day event. The reason was a notice from the Portage la Prairie Planning District stating that Linda and Mitchell Omichinski, on whose rural property the festival is held, had to reapply for a conditional-use permit that would allow them to hold a multi-day event.
"We feel that the rug has been pulled out from under our feet," festival co-founder Linda Omichinski said.
The original permit, approved by the Portage Planning District in August 2017, allowed them to use their property, which is located in an agricultural zone, for recreational use for the annual festival, with limited overnight camping and parking along the north side of Hwy. 331 and one side of PR 34W. That permit did not specify the number of days the festival is to take place.
Omichinski met with the RM of Portage council last September to ask the municipality to grant the festival ‘signature event’ status to help it expand and potentially qualify for more funding.
She and the other volunteer organizers then began advertising the 2019 festival as a three-day event. They also booked performers to play over the weekend.
Portage reeve Kam Blight said council agreed to the festival’s request for signature event status, but it was up to the organizers to make sure that the conditional-use permit reflected the longer time frame, higher number of attendees and the need for more overnight camping, parking and security.
The organizers were later able to hold the festival on the Omichinskis’ property on the Saturday and at Island Park in Portage la Prairie on the Sunday.
August: Rest-a-Bit Homeless Shelter opens in Portage
When the doors of the Rest-a-Bit shelter open at 8 p.m. local homeless people can shelter there for the night and usually enjoy a home-cooked dinner or breakfast.
Rest-a-Bit operates in the Prairie Vineyard Christian Fellowship Church (107 Duke Ave.) and offers accommodation for up to six people from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Originally opened in mid-June for three nights a week, the non-profit organization’s board soon expanded to all weeknights (and now operates six nights a week).
"We were convinced that (three nights) was another barrier," said board member Miriam Turyamwijuka, adding that those seeking shelter were not aware of which nights the shelter is open. Communicating with those who might use the shelter is a challenge.
At this time, all shelter users must be referred when coming for the first time. Referring agencies include the Portage Learning and Literacy Centre, Youth For Christ, and Canadian Mental Health Association. Other agencies also have the ability to refer.
The non-profit organization has a no tolerance policy for persons who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
As well as a bed for the night and a meal, people using the shelter can also leave with snacks, water, personal hygiene items, and clothing.
With support offered by Southern Health-Santé Sud’s public health department, Portage la Prairie RCMP, local social agencies and private donors, Turyamwijuka said she believes the community is behind the shelter. "We feel like we’ve had good support."
Rest-a-Bit board members are still looking for a permanent location for the shelter in Portage’s downtown area.
September: PC candidates win in four constituencies
Progressive Conservative incumbent candidates Ralph Eichler for Lakeside, Blaine Pedersen for Midland, and Ian Wishart for Portage la Prairie all celebrated easy wins in the provincial election on Sept. 10, as did PC candidate Myrna Driedger in the new Roblin constituency.
One of the first candidates to be declared a winner on election night, Eichler, 69, began his fifth term as MLA. Eichler won with 6,394 votes, well ahead of his closest competitor, Dan Rugg (NDP) who received 2.054 votes.
Pedersen, 65, who lives in Elm Creek, was also re-elected for a fifth term with 6,700 votes. The NDP’s Cindy Friesen received 1,370, and Julia Sisler, representing the Manitoba Liberals, received 860.
Wishart, 65, of Portage la Prairie, started his third term as Portage MLA. He received 4,489 votes compared to 1,521 for Andrew Podolecki (NDP) and 843 for Charles Huband (MLP).
Driedger received 6,075 votes, easily defeating second-place New Democratic Party candidate Sophie Brandt-Murenzi, who garnered 1,886 votes, and Liberal candidate Michael Bazak with 1,728, and Green Party candidate Kevin Nichols with 1,209. Voter turnout in Roblin was 62 per cent.
With the provincial constituencies’ boundary realignment, this was the first time that Roblin included the RM of Headingley, which was formerly situated in the Morris constituency. Driedger said, while she definitely walked more than in previous campaigns, she received a strong response from Headingley residents.
"Certainly the Roblin constituency was much larger and that meant a lot more walking."
October: Morantz wins federal election
Conservative Party of Canada candidate Marty Morantz was elected on Oct. 21 as MP for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley.
The 55-year-old lawyer and one-term city councillor said he knocked on almost 40,000 doors as he made his way through the riding over the past two months. He wore out two pairs of runners and a pair of boots.
According to Elections Canada’s vote tally, Morantz received 18,530 votes compared to incumbent and runner-up Liberal Party candidate Doug Eyolfson’s tally of 16,133 votes.
When Morantz entered his campaign headquarters at 3244 Portage Ave. in the late evening on Oct. 21, he was greeted by a large group of cheering supporters and stepped onto a platform following an introduction by provincial Progressive Conservative MLA Heather Stefanson.
After thanking his family, campaign team and supporters. Morantz thanked the riding’s voters.
"I’m absolutely delighted that voters in Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia-Headingley placed their trust in me as part of a strong and renewed Opposition."
Candice Bergen was one of the first Manitoba candidates declared as elected after the polls closed on Oct. 21.
Bergen, 55, has held the Portage-Lisgar riding for the Conservative Party of Canada since 2008 and is serving her fourth term as MP. She received an unofficial tally of 31,403 votes, or 71 per cent of the total votes cast in the riding.
"I’m very grateful for the support I received from the people of Portage-Lisgar," Bergen said.
November: Wilf Taillieu Clinic opens at HSC
Headingley mayor and business owner Wilf Taillieu died in June 2016, but a legacy that bears his name will save lives and ease suffering in countless others.
The Wilf Taillieu Thoracic Surgery Clinic and Endoscopy Unit at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre officially opened on Nov. 5 thanks primarily to the fundraising efforts of Wilf’s wife Mavis Taillieu and others who knew and loved Wilf.
The fundraising campaign that Taillieu headed raised $3.2 million within 11 months — what HSC Foundation board chair Tina Jones described at the opening ceremony as being an amazingly fast rate. With the provincial government’s support to cover operating costs, the clinic, headed by Dr. Larry Tan, began seeing patients in July.
Taillieu detailed her husband’s personal story in a heartfelt speech at the opening, describing the progression of the esophageal cancer that killed him.
"Wilf was a remarkable man with enormous strength of character," she said.
Following a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer in 2015, Wilf eventually needed an endoscopic procedure every three to four weeks that allowed him to eat and drink. At that time, patients at the HSC who required this type of medical treatment had to wait for operating room availability and they were sometimes required to wait longer than was comfortable. Taillieu said she and Wilf ended up going to the emergency department to receive treatment because he wasn’t able to swallow liquids.
After Wilf’s death, she wanted to help others in similar medical situations and honour Wilf’s memory. She realized that a space dedicated to diagnosing and treating thoracic cancers was needed.
Taillieu said she was overwhelmed by the positive response she received from those who knew Wilf and his family. Donors generously helped her reach her fundraising goal quickly.
"I think that was a testament to Wilf — how well-respected and well-liked he was," Taillieu said.
Mavis Taillieu was joined by her grandsons and other family members at the official opening of the Wilf Taillieu Thoracic Surgery Clinic and Endoscopy Unit at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre on Nov. 5.
December: Headingley racer receives honour
Headingley racer Rick Weiss, 31, was recently named World of Outlaws dirt track racing rookie of the year, making him the first Canadian to earn this honour.
Nicknamed the Manitoba Missile, Weiss, his crew chief Shawn Gage, and Weiss’ girlfriend Dayna Fossay are gaining recognition in the dirt track racing world as they travel to tracks across the country. The World of Outlaws Morton Buildings Late Model Series features more than 50 races in the United States and Canada from January to the end of November.
"Now they know what we’ve done and what we can do," Weiss said.
His racing career began at Red River Co-op Speedway, south of Winnipeg, where he started competing in the Super Trucks class, then switched to modified stock cars before moving to the top class in stock car racing — super late model racing about 10 years ago. He didn’t race in Canada at all last season as there are few tracks that host late model racing and the prize money is higher at American tracks.
Having the dirt track series televised through pay-per-view broadcasts is helping raise the sport’s profile, Weiss said.
The past season marked the first time that Weiss and his team competed over a full season in the late model dirt track series. He said it was a learning experience. "That was one of the hardest things because about 80 per cent of the tracks were new to us."