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A Storied Winnipeg: Fables and Local Legends: Introduction

In the Aboriginal storytelling tradition, which is more than applicable to tales about Winnipeg, your right to relate a narrative is important. You cannot merely claim, as those from the European tradition do, "I read this in a book". You are responsible for stating your claim to the story, to its antecedents and your connection to the material. "What right do you have to tell this story?" an Aboriginal audience might justly ask, and just as Winnipeggers innocently imitate "Ho-lee" with its Aboriginal intonation, Winnipeggers might ask the same question.

I first moved to Winnipeg in 1995. Before that Winnipeg was a blank spot in junior high geography class and my knowledge of the city was limited to its status as capital of Manitoba, a province whose boundaries were refreshingly square after the difficult geography of Ontario and Quebec.

This was ameliorated slightly when I drove across Canada in 1988, moving from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton to the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island. We stopped in Winnipeg briefly, hearing rumours of Folk Fest and Folklorama. The overnight at the Osborne Village Motor Inn, which is justly famous in Osborne Village, quickly frightened us onto the road again. We had parked behind the Inn and while watching our car, which was filled to the brim with our belongings, we saw dozens of interested people pass by it on their way to the beer store in the back. Deciding to move the car we drove across the Osborne Street Bridge into the downtown to park off Portage Avenue which was summer-night crazy and scarcely seemed any better. We were obvious tourists and more than one pedestrian called us out. On the walk back we crossed Memorial Park in front of the Legislative Building with its ornate, baroque, Doric, Romanesque, Ionic columns and domes and marveled that such a complex sprawl would be here of all places.

We left Winnipeg the next morning and I never returned until a day in 1993, when I was accepted at the University of Manitoba for a Masters that I ended up taking at the University of New Brunswick. I was driving across the country with Jono and Michele and came to Winnipeg to see the university. While I met with people at the school, they walked around the Forks, only to report to me later that it was a strange and evocative place. Their stories were confused and provided no traction in my mind for later remembrance.

I moved to Winnipeg in 1995 for a PhD, and was introduced to the English department at the University of Manitoba by their comment about the view. They said I'd picked the best seat in the house, on the sixth floor of Fletcher Argue, and when I looked puzzled they told me I had a great view. I looked again at the broad sweep of the Red River and the closely cropped fields that belonged to the agriculture faculty. I was to spend the next five years, in the winters at least, living and working next to those fields and avoiding that river.

When I moved here, Winnipeg was a magical city for me, despite my girlfriend at the time who said it was "full of freaks". She lasted three years, for as every Winnipegger knows, Winnipeg is a place you must develop an allegiance to quickly, before winter sweeps across the plains and buries you. Otherwise, you have no staying power.

I liked it that the many Aboriginal people living in the city greatly increased my chance of hearing their language and accent, as well as that of a hundred other nationalities who call Winnipeg their residence if not their home. Here people are schooled in Ukrainian and Dutch, Vietnamese and Spanish, and recently, the school system, reeling under the revelations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, have even added Ojibwe to some schools. I heard a hundred languages and saw faces I thought would not have been possible even given the standard variation of the human type. The nightly news carried the hog report and sow belly futures, and local commercials ranged from well-performed and thoughtful to innocently campy.

The city is insular, and strangers are viewed with suspicion, although they are nearly all strangers. A woman on the river walk lost her purse onto the ice, which must have been difficult to do since the walk is some three metres from the river, and as the news explained, a total stranger went to help her when she fell in trying to get it back. The Good Samaritan was touted in the news and it was remarked on every channel that he was unknown to her. In the Winnipeg imagination that was at least as interesting as his action.

Similarly, a homeless man who'd chosen to camp near the shore rescued a number of people who threw themselves from the bridge or fell into the fast moving Red River. This was also marveled at, even while the Human Rights Museum was built next door on a concrete pad which sealed underground the many Aboriginal artefacts for which the Forks is famous. Perhaps it is meant to be a deliberate time capsule, but in any event the artefacts will stay there until a later generation wishes to learn about Aboriginal people and their historical presence in the city.

I lived at first on Mayfair, where the cheap doctor owner lorded over the building as though he were an Earl from the medieval period, and then in Osborne Village in a building shaped and coloured like a dingy sugar cube. There my neighbour masturbated for the people in the window opposite and when I called the police about a fight in the yard they came first to my apartment so that all might know who was responsible for their presence.

My friend's mother living off Mountain called the police when two men were breaking into her home, thinking the police would love to catch people in the act, only to be told if she didn't like the neighbourhood she should leave. My owling friend was set upon by three cars and six policemen in Tuxedo where a neighbour had called about someone creeping along the riverbank in the night, not aware he had permission from the mansion next door. At the same moment, his bird watching friend stood for forty-five minutes over a man who'd been stabbed in the north end waiting for the police and ambulance. Some people say there are two cities, divided and circumscribed by infrastructure and services, although there are many more than that.

I ventured into the north end to peruse pawn shops and marveled that they'd been truthful enough to reject the naming of Westview Park in favour of the more credible Garbage Hill for the mound that housed the old landfill. In the far east end I looked for car parts in much-perused U-pick yards off Springfield Road. In the far flung reaches of the city, the St Pauls, both east and west, I visited people and saw how their view of the world did not contain either the city or the rest of Canada. I sat in opulent homes in Tuxedo and met their offspring at university where they slyly claimed, in their poverty-stricken way, that they did not come from wealth. "I live in a regular three level house," I was told on more than one occasion.

In the south of the city I've been lost in the sweeping curves that is the suburban attempt to make the flatness of the prairie as confusing as possible for the driver, where without sidewalks teenagers played video games in basements, fought on porch steps and drowned in pools.

A major spring flood gripped the city after my second winter. The flood of 1997 was significant enough to have Chrétien come for a photo op, although in a typical Winnipeg fashion someone had overloaded his sandbag and nearly gave him a hernia. I sandbagged a building along the Assiniboine which would not allow us inside to use the bathroom, and briefly I worked alongside a couple dressed for the part in sports clothes and saw them take the pictures which would prove their worth to their community before they left. I watched as the city dealt with the emergency and I doubt I was alone when I wondered that we could build the Brunkild Dike from mud and old school buses and derelict cars in the time that it took the water to come from Grand Forks, Dakota, which had drowned and burned. Grande Point lost a few mansions and we were treated to the owner's pleas that the city let itself be flooded to save the twenty or so houses of their affluent neighbourhood. "We were sacrificed," they told us incredulously, "to save Winnipeg."

When the flood was over, I sat with a thousand others listening in disbelief as the city officials debated tearing out the dike they had spent millions building, believing somehow that the flood could never come again. We were reminded of Duff Roblin, who pushed for the floodway despite Winnipeg's overweening optimism. Penny pinching and short-sighted Winnipeggers had declaimed his reasoning by claiming that the flood of 1950 was unusual. It will never happen again. In 1997 few were saying that as the waters poured inexorably north and the floodway brimmed. Even in 2009 when nearly the same scene was repeated, the commentary had slowed to a brief squall in the racist murmur on the Free Press website.

I met people from outside the city, from Beausejour, Altona, Steinbach and Morden, who were terrified of the city, and others from Carmen, Brandon, Ashern, and St. Anne, who loved what it offered. I went with my owling friend as he baited raccoons for his research, and watched wildlife biologists oblivious to the screech owl's discomfort try to encourage us to walk beneath fledglings. I saw the large offices where the business of the province was decided upon, and in city hall I watched their dissembling as complacent councillors lied about policy while they flipped through the rolodex of their bribes, keeping an accounting of who paid, and more importantly, who didn't.

I joined marches against wars, talked with people in tepees outside the legislature in the middle of winter, and met with the occupy protestors who took over Memorial Park. I joined Filipino barbeques in Kildonan Park in the summer and walked with the River Heights people in Assiniboine Park. I bicycled along the river paths swerving around people who lived in the only unpoliced wild space, and I found an accordion in the trash next to a 1930's sewing machine someone had carefully packed for removal.

I went to performances by the Contemporary Dancers and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, two world class troupes in one city, and saw free plays by university students which far outshone the offering of the professional stages. I read of the Masonic underpinnings of the downtown architecture, and strange interpretations of Shakespeare in the fake ruins at the Forks in the Aquarian, a free newspaper which survives by ads from the most questionable of businesses. I watched a student set up five-foot cones from snow in the park for four hours until I asked him why and he said he wanted to. In hidden corners in Chinatown I tasted strange vegetables and bought my food by pointing since we had no language in common. At the city's many restaurants I ate ethnic food that was cheap enough for the Winnipeg pocket and gourmet enough to bring me back for Ethiopian and Vietnamese, Thai and Indian, Portuguese and Chinese vegetarian and any of a hundred other combinations from restaurants which sprung up like ear-shaped Chinese mushrooms and disappeared almost as quickly.

I bought books from local authors who could compete on the world stage and went to readings that were incoherent enough that the audience spent their time looking through the crowd for someone from the publisher who'd sponsored their friend. I went from rooftops into abandoned buildings, found shopping carts ten deep in the river by the perhaps aptly named Misericordia Hospital, and took photos of hurried graffiti whose artists had already moved their craft west.

I'd picked up hitchhikers in Ontario who we soon discovered were friends of friends, Winnipeg having at the most two degrees of separation. Aboriginal friends told me they taught their children to beware of police, and run when they saw them, instincts left over from the residential schools and Starlight Tours still protecting them. Others told me how they were held in detention for three days for looking Métis or pulled over because they were driving while Indian.

Winnipeg is the confusing clatter of languages on the bus, the kind driver who stops with his full load to tell the waiting people in minus forty that another bus will come soon, as well as the crazies who lash out for no reason. On the 60 run to the university Art talked non-stop and had a thousand followers before he retired. Even now a driver's attempt to be loquacious will make the older people sigh, remembering that most gregarious of men who used his eight hour shifts to comment on the weather and people and restaurants one should try.

In the inner city I met a man showing a film about underground labour movements in Argentina, only to have my Argentine friend rejected when he asked for a copy of the pirated DVD, since it was against some sub-set of rules the DVD was about breaking.

I spoke with one of our politicians on the bus when he was going to give a talk about globalization. He told me how busy he was and how he had no time to prepare and therefore he needed his bus time. Speaking speedily and at length, he told me that for forty-five minutes from the university, telling me how important he was and how many people depended on him, so that when I left the bus he had mere time to gather his things before he had to speak.

I met people so disregarding of the weather that they bragged of the remote starter on their car and their warm offices even while people slept on grates wrapped in cardboard. I stood with the people lining up on a Saturday morning to get into the Sherbrook Inn bar while they told me how the staff in the Salvation Army store across the street destroyed what they threw away so that no one could benefit from their dumpstered goods. I listened to them moralize about the waste, about the devastated looks of the very poor who looked through dumpsters for shoes only to find them slashed in the Salvation Army's attempt to keep their coffers full, and I agreed. My alcoholics were better than my do-gooder volunteers.

I saw people I had known disappear into the twelve tribes cult which sleeps hundreds in their large houses, their only appearance in town to sell their organic goods at markets and their shop, or walking in twos in order to keep an eye on each other, the women long-haired subdued and the men bearded pride.

I listened to the clashing noise of a hundred different explanations for strange religions from people as various as women who'd had their childhood raped from them by the residential schools and rich kids from the Mennonite farming communities south of the city. They called upon gods and afterlives, until their promises and threats, by their frequency and variety, sounded as hollow as the empty ground upon which the city stands.

I saw the truck which lay at the bottom of the hole under Daly Street by Confusion Corner, and listened to a postal delivery woman at Christmas enter my house to tell me about her baby that had been born in my bedroom. I watched her face as she waxed ecstatic while outside children darted into traffic as a game, the screeching tires and cursing only silenced when the hit-and-run drivers smashed a car and then, glancing, sped away.

I walked by intersections I was told were particularly bad for car crashes, and looked carefully for how they were different than others, since all corners in a flat city laid out in a poorly formed grid are the same, lights and flat and perpendicular roadways and rules.

I stood on the ice with a few thousand others and watched the fireworks set off from the bridge above descend into the waiting crowd. Instead of dismay and fear, people laughed as their children jumped on the burning packages which had barely missed their heads.

I was in Winnipeg when the former policeman Daryl Evans reluctantly told how criminals here are easy to catch because it takes them at least a month to realize they leave tracks in the snow. "We usually just follow their tracks to their house or their car," he told an aghast Winnipeg, which roiled under the blow to their intellectual self-esteem.

Likewise, the Montreal tourism ad which confronted eager vacationers with the dread prospect of a Winnipeg landing brought the city pride out in force. Not the city pride which is our biggest street party of scantily clad queens and techo-bop, but rather the fear that anyone might think Winnipeg was not as good as anywhere else.

Even this winter we have faced such talk, and Winnipeg was predictably outraged that we would be declared the most racist city in Canada. "What is your metric?" shouted some, while others resorted to commentary about Regina and Saskatoon and racial slurs that if they but knew it proved the claim to be true.

Winnipeg is all these things and a million more. The water quality hovers just above a boil water advisory and the best bands in the world stop at our venues. Mosquitoes haunt every green space in the city and many of the people here are inadvertently friendly, seemingly unaware that they should be as cold as the rest of Canada. Even so, they will never invite you home, that's reserved for the friends they have had since kindergarten. The only way onto their soft furniture is to crawl back into the womb and be born here, cry against the cold and curse the heat, despise and fiercely defend the city, and look in everyone's eye as they pass. You might know them.

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