Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Some vague and general and probably unfounded musings on Winnipeg
I went to Winnipeg last weekend for a wedding. I was looking forward to it, actually. The woman who is getting married went to medical school there and ended up falling in love with the place (and a guy from there as well). It doesn't get a good reputation (poor, boring and windy) in general in Canada but then in reaction gets a respectful appreciation as an underdog. David Collier and Guy Maddin have helped to make it seem kind of downtroddenly cool and truly Canadian in my mind.
The flight is mellow from Montreal, only 3 hours. We came in on a beautiful Friday morning. Yes it is flat. But it's surprisingly green from the sky. There are large swathes of tree-filled neighbourhoods spreading out from the downtown core that do a lot to alleviate the flatness. You can also see that fancy bridge poking up. Otherwise, though, it's pretty flat!
We stayed downtown at the Marlborough hotel. It was once a beautiful old buildng that had been almost utterly destroyed by "renovations". It was shame because there was one beautiful banquet room with soaring arced ceilings and the breakfast coffee shop which used to be the bar was amazing, with this cool giant wooden clock. But the rest of the place had had the ceilings lowered and basic Canadian tackiness put everywhere. We might as well have been in Nanaimo. The rooms were particularly depressing, as they had all been moved from the original building to the extension built in the 60s. The original building was now used for businesses and I wasn't able to see the inside of any of the offices, but the woman at the front desk said they were quite nice on the inside.
What struck me the most walking around downtown Winnipeg was how much it resembled the downtown of a medium-sized American city: generally rundown, lots of big, blocky buildings, some of which were boarded up, department stores that had seen better days, little bright spots of culture or community resources here and there like wild raspberries in a vacant lot. A lot of people (many handicapped) in want hanging around, while working people seem to be hurrying somewhere.
The other thing was how visible the native (or do we say aboriginals, first nations people? I'm not sure anymore)presence is there. At least downtown, you could almost get the feeling that they are the majority. You definitely get the feeling that the aboriginals are a significant part of Canadian life. Unfortunately, a lot of the natives were the people in want, clearly affected by poverty and the ills that tend to go along with that. Fortunately, a lot of the natives also looked like they were doing fine and were often also the people hurrying from job to home or job to lunch or whatever.
This is complete and utter speculation and could be total hogwash, but it seems that if you grow up in Winnipeg, the first nations are present and real and not just something you hear about on the CBC and that maybe growing up in such a context would make you more aware of the complete failure of our government and society to adress the ills of a population that we fucked over in the first place. Do people from Winnipeg put up with this kind of racist, yellow journalism, for instance? The people I hung out with in Winnipeg were very cool, often impressive. But that might have been a very concentrated group of highly educated, socially-conscious individuals.
Another strong cultural influence in Manitoba are the Mennonites and all the hyper-focused christian sect spin-offs (I think I heard someone say they are related to Methodists at the base). I didn't see any of them, but I read an interesting article on one group that ran a pig farm, who made the Amish look relaxed. The groom was also of Mennonite descent, but he patiently explained to me that being Mennonite was like being Jewish. Only some of them wear the funny hats. (Speaking of Jewish, it was a bit disturbing to turn to the "Places of Worship" section in the hotel info binder and not see a single synagogue. I did later learn there is a strong, but small Jewish community in Winnipeg.)
Because I was so focused on looking for used bookstores, I didn't get enough time to just wander around the residential neighbourhoods. What I did see was quite pleasant. Lots of small houses, under trees. Like the downtown, everything looked rundown, though generally clean. You know come to think of it, the residential neighbourhoods reminded me somewhat of Oakland. Lots of people sitting on porches, walking to and from or hanging around the convenient store.
It must be noted that the weather was perfect while I was there, clear, sunny and warm but not too hot. I joked with my hosts that I was seeing Winnipeg in the best possible light and this blog post may have been very different had I been there in February. I also note, if it's not super obvious, that I saw a teeny slice of a city and my perspective is certainly akin to one of the proverbial blind men observing their elephant.
But overall, I felt like Winnipeg was hardcore. I may have seen one actual hipster (aside from the guests from Toronto) and it was questionable as many people just wear moustaches there, in a non-ironic fashion. Definitely no yuppies in site, though I might have not been in the right neighbourhoods. And the people were real and liked to party. I felt comfortable, Canadian. It's a good city. You should go there if you get the chance.
(I talk very specifically about my used bookstore experience in Winnipeg on my other blog, if you're interested in that sort of geekery.)