Story by Nancy Wigston
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
WINNIPEG, MANITOBA — Despite its reputation as winter central, Winnipeg is one of Canada’s warmest cities: sunshine and friendly folk plus a music- and food-infused extravaganza — Festival du Voyageur, now in its 46th year — all add up to one hot winter destination (and besides, it’s a dry cold).
Festival du Voyageur is Western Canada’s largest winter festival, second only in size in the entire country to the annual blow-out in Quebec City. Inspired by the need for fresh air and the urge to explore the city, my teenaged son and I set off one bright winter’s day in search of music and fun. Abandoning our beloved but sedentary relatives, we headed for St. Boniface, the French Quarter of Winnipeg.
Feeling rather like the pioneering voyageurs after which the festival is named, we drove along The Peg’s traffic-free streets on a Saturday morning, crossing over the Red River, thinking of fur traders of days past, except that our guides were not aboriginals or Mėtis, but relatives on cell phones. “Keep left, that’s right, keep going, turn right, then left.”
Parking spaces at Voyageur Park were plentiful, and any doubts about the cold were assuaged by blasts of hot air that greeted us as we entered the first of five heated tents — important selling points in a February festival. Heated was actually an understatement. The Souvenir Tent seemed more like a sweat lodge, with its range of tempting items: wooden carvings, original creations made from leather and wool — and naturally — maple syrup.
Beaver Tails and a Challenging Snow Maze
Sporting our voyageur-style red-blue-and-gold fringed sashes, we sauntered out like locals, to explore the park. Artistic snow sculptures beckoned — the works of nations from all over the globe — competing for prizes and shining under the diamond-bright sun; huts were selling beaver tails; there was a sugar shack, and a challenging snow maze.
Within the wooden walls of old Fort Gibraltar, we found colourfully clad voyageurs and their families tending fires, cooking food, displaying a range of fur pelts, warm blankets, and bush survival gear. Here we discovered folks reminiscing to visitors young and old about their lives and adventures. The festival aims to recreate the spirit of what voyageurs called “Le Grand Rendez-Vous,” a celebratory gathering marking a successful season’s work.
Close by is the aboriginal camp, showing another side of history, and behind the far fence we heard huskies barking with an exuberance that reminded us we were city dwellers at heart. In past years a festival highlight was the annual Eukanuba Dog Sled Race with its $8,000 prize purse. But dog sledding has since been replaced with more human-centric spectacles, including Fashion on Ice, a winter fashion show held on the frozen river.
From Beard-Growing Contests to Pea Soup
As the festival evolves, its attractions become more inclusive. Be sure to check out the beard-growing contest, which features an “open” category for the less-than-naturally-hirsute, where participants can create a beard. Another not-to-be-missed twist on tradition is the Rendez-Vous des Chefs: this would be a pea soup competition. Local restaurateurs prepare the soups and the public act as tasters and judges.
But what kind of Grand Rendez-Vous would this be (you’re probably thinking) without music and dancing? Heading back to those heated tents, we found ourselves absolutely spoiled for choice by the number and variety of bands: Cajun fiddlers, pop/rock groups, Celtic, aboriginal and Mėtis musicians — as well as entertainment of all kinds for children. Festival du Voyageur is a western wonderland of music and song.
On that first visit my son (the rock guitarist) was also charmed by a wild local ensemble called Men in Kilts, a skirted group of young musicians who spoke both English and French. Dan Cannon from Men in Kilts has since become a member of a Winnipeg Celtic band that returns to the festival year after year — The Dust Rhinos. My moment arrived with a Louisiana Cajun group — my son watching as a stranger asked his mother to dance, just like they do in real Cajun country. Plenty of food was on hand to fuel our toe-tapping afternoon, as we forgot all about the cold, dry or not.
MORE ABOUT FESTIVAL DU VOYAGEUR
2015 Dates: February 13-22
Event Details: Festival du Voyageur grandly celebrates Manitoba’s francophone history, community and language, while attracting anglophones from all across Canada to a winter jam session abundant with music, food, drink and cultural activities. Now in its 46th year, Festival du Voyageur’s special events include evening concerts, traditional French-Canadian meals, the Winter Feast, traditional craft workshops and more.
This year’s festival is hosting 130 musical acts, including local Winnipeg bands like Red Moon Road, Moses Mayes and Collage à Trois; Canadian bands like Elliott Brood and Bucks 65; and international acts like Beausoleil, a well-loved Cajun band from Louisiana. Visitors can enter any festival tent or venue at any time and hear new and ear-catching sounds. Come prepared to dance.
Festival Address: Whittier Park, 836 rue Saint Joseph, Winnipeg (see map below)
Tickets & Passes: Voyageur Pass (10 days)
Adult (18 years old and up) – $30
Youth (13 – 17 years old) – $16
Child (5 – 12 years old) – $11
4 and under – Free
Voyageur Park day pass
Adult (18 years old and up) – $17
Youth (13 – 17 years old) – $11
Child (5 – 12 years old) – $9
4 and under – Free