I ARRIVED IN WINNIPEG ON FRIDAY MORNING, 18 hours late. A car picked me up from the airport and drove me towards the tall buildings I’d seen on my descent. We passed hastily built chain stores, which reminded me of The Weakerthans’ lyric… “this brand new strip mall chews on farmland as we fish for someone to blame.”
No disrespect to Winnipeg, but The Weakerthans were the only thing I knew about this city. I was here to join an arts and culture junket, sponsored by Travel Manitoba and Tourism Winnipeg.
I quickly realized there was a ton of easily accessible art and culture to explore here, but I continuously asked myself: How did a small, often frozen city in the middle of the Canadian prairies become such a haven for art?
After traversing the big box’d outskirts, we entered a suburban neighborhood built in the 1920s. We traveled past telephone workers with a union bumper sticker and a t-shirt that read “sorry there is no vaccine against stupidity.” I saw an Ethiopian market, a Latino barbershop, a Shawarma Time, a Filipino church, a produce stand advertising “fresh fruit from BC and California,” an East African tapas restaurant, a cheque cashing/pawn trader, and Kihiw Iskewock, transitional housing for Aboriginal women exiting correctional facilities, with a billboard that said “real men don’t buy sex from kids.”
I checked in at the recently renovated Radisson on Portage. The concierge handed me a 15-pound recyclable grocery bag full of swag, and my room key. I ate a wilted fruit and cheese platter that had been placed there 18 hours prior to welcome me to the hotel. I called the tour organizer on Skype and she told me to meet them five blocks away. We had a packed schedule exploring the city’s cultural institutions, meeting working artists and culture makers, and learning about the city’s vibrant history.
I met the group of writers and tourism industry professionals across the street from a poutine chain at Old Market Square. A dispossessed Aboriginal youth asked us for a looney but one of the writers gave him food instead. He walked away because he did not have the proper cutlery to eat the quinoa salad.
We walked around the Exchange District, which had been a stop on early vaudeville circuits. We were given a tour of the Pantages Theatre. While this was just one of 60 branches in North America, Alexander Pantages had used the Winnipeg theater to decide which acts would go on tour. The slogan went, “if you can make it in Winnipeg you can make it anywhere.” The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Milton Berle, and Felix ‘the Mind Reading Duck’ all performed here; they went on to become international stars. Those who didn’t win over audiences were often fired by Pantages on the spot, and left stranded in Winnipeg.
This idea that Winnipeg is a proving ground for the rest of North America still lingers. The city remains a test market for things like tires and hula hoops and Cherry Coke.
Aboriginal people have been living and farming in this region for thousands of years. The first settlements popped up at the fork of the Red River and Assiniboine River (pronounced like “A Cinnabon® River,” which would be delicious, if not a little soggy.) During the 18th and 19th centuries, Winnipeg grew from a fur trading outpost into a booming city with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Winnipeg became the gateway to the Canadian West. Enormous wealth accumulated. Portage Street had more than 20 banks, luxury businesses opened, vast funds were invested into ostentatious civic projects, five families were even first-class passengers on the Titanic. This would not last forever.
Speculators anticipated that the city would eventually balloon to 4 million residents, but the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 put a kibosh on that. Canada’s rail system became less significant for international trade. The “Chicago of the North” had lost its major source of income. Economic strife at the beginning of World War I led to dissatisfaction among workers. In 1919 a General Strike was called, and nearly the entire working population walked off the job for a month.
Today, people joke that Winnipeg still suffers from the economic crisis…of 1929. The historical factors of Winnipeg’s boom to bust have become the underpinnings of the city’s artistic culture. Winnipeg-based writer and curator Sigrid Dahle formulated a theory that she calls the Gothic Unconscious. The theory speculates that from the genocide of indigenous peoples to the ousting of the Métis to the exclusion of immigrants to the weather, “Winnipeg is a city haunted by the ghosts of its traumatic social history.”
On Saturday morning, we took a tour of the Plug-In Gallery’s “My Winnipeg” project, which features the work of Winnipeg artists who have shown both locally and internationally.
The exhibit included many works by individuals, but collaborative art making practices were also on display. The city’s early history of organized labor can still be seen in its art world. The Professional Native Indian Artists Inc were a collective of Aboriginal artists working to promote Indigenous art in the Western contemporary art world. The Royal Art Lodge was a collective founded by graduate students who wanted to continue working and studying during the University of Manitoba strike in 1996.
In a roundtable conversation with local artists and curators, we publicly wondered why there is so much creativity in Winnipeg. Is it those freezing temperatures that make you hide in your studios to produce work? Is it the city’s macabre sense of humor? Is it that Winnipeg is an affordable place to live? Is it the arts funding from feds, province, city, and private donors? Is it the influence of the city’s world-class art institutions like Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and Aboriginal Music Program? Is it radical projects like Art City that get low-income kids excited about the arts? Is it the classic rock legacy of Neil Young and Bachman-Turner Overdrive? Is it the DIY collective artistic spirit? Is it the focus on art over commerce, getting things done by cooperation over competition?
Whatever Winnipeg has, how can we export it?
This piece originally appeared in Matador Network.
I was hosted by Tourism Winnipeg.