Warm Winter-peg

It’s not too often that a writer from Toronto has kind words for Winnipeg, especially in the depths of winter, but Noah Richler defied the naysayers when he visited the ’Peg and afterward penned Warming up to Winter-peg for the Toronto Star.

Richler exuded enthusiasm in the March 5 article, which recounted a four-day trip to Winnipeg with his wife to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Prior to his visit, the son of famous Canadian author Mordecai Richler, did some research, much of it unsolicited. One Toronto producer friend dropped off a copy of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg. In the days preceding his trip, he wrote, “the ’Peg appears to stalk us: Stuart Maclean’s CBC Radio show, the Vinyl Café, plays music from the Weakerthans and the Be Good Tanyas. My daughter discovers and likes my old Crash Test Dummies CD.”

Richler isn’t new to the ’Peg. He wrote of the pleasure he previously had staying in the Hotel Fort Garry, “perhaps the best large hotel in the country.” For his return visit, Richler again booked rooms at the Fort Garry. 

The black-and-white film by Maddin, which Richler called “a sideways homage to the decade of the 1930s that killed the economy and the aspirations of this city in the ‘heart of the heart’ of the continent,” served as the writer’s introduction to the Exchange District and its “stately and handsome turn-of-the-century office blocks, their lavish cornices, sculpted bronze gates and four-storey painted advertisements fading into their exposed brick walls ...” Of course, what struck Richler was that the Exchange District was stuck in another era of history as a result of a prior economic crash.  With poetic licence, Richler referred to the district as “the Prairies’ Titanic beached in a Manitoba graveyard.” 

None of the vivid descriptions of the fate of the Exchange District were meant to denigrate; instead, they were an acknowledgement of the area’s uniqueness as “Canada’s old soul.”

The very fact the Exchange District was saved for posterity is owed to the economic collapse, ending its promise to become the “Chicago of the North,” which was the rallying cry of civic boosters into the early 1910s. Yet, the Exchange District’s downturn resulted in the preservation of the architectural wonders that are now recognized as a national historic treasure unrivaled in North America. 

Richler said the “rude halting of the city’s destiny is why a touching modesty is integral to the character of the Winnipeggers we meet and all the others who were stunned that we were making the journey at all ...

“That modesty: You realize, after a while, that it has less to do with Winnipeggers underestimating just how fascinating their city is than their knowing, in some quiet part of their being, that if they do the modern thing and share it too much, then they may well lose the conditions that make it such a singular and ultimately livable city.”

The livable city is noted for its affordability, wrote Richler, with tickets to its many cultural events three or four times less than similar venues in Toronto. He pointed to the multitude of clubs, theatres, the rejuvenated Forks, museums, “the beautiful” Centennial Concert Hall, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra as prime examples of how culture can be shared by everyone, including youth, due to the affordable entry prices.

“Thrift is a part of the culture,” he wrote, “which is not to say that you can’t spend money here, but that the city’s used aspect is also an invitation for fun and discovery.”

Thrift is actually a pride expressed continually by Winnipeggers who seek out bargains on every occasion. While it may seem like something to be mocked, it actually is a trademark of continued survival while outside the province chaos reigns. Pride arises because frugality and modesty have allowed the city and province to chug steadily along without encountering a break in the track.  

Part of Richler’s discovery was buying three  vintage Hudson’s Bay coats at Antiques & Funk and being able to frequent Aqua Books, “one of the craziest, most amusing and well-ordered second-hand book” stores.

At Mirlycourtois, he ate one of the best French meals he’s had in Canada.

When he asked Mirlycourtois why the restaurateur moved to Winnipeg from France in his 20s and decided to stay, the reply was “for the fishing,” as well as good produce, great hunting and morels .

At Scott McTaggart’s Fusion Grill, he  and his wife sampled white truffle perogies with duck sausage in a walnut cream sauce. His wife Sarah’s coq au vin, reminded him of a cherished moment with his late father at the tender age of eight at Chez Allard, one of the most celebrated restaurants on Paris’s Left Bank.

The Sunday brunch at the Hotel Fort Garry was “a munificent spread of breads, meats, smoked fishes, egg dishes, fruits and desserts stretching out of the hotel’s beautiful Palm Room bar and into the lobby that was so lavish and generous it is best described as marvelously preposterous.”

Richler and his wife rented skates at the Mini Donuts Factory and skated along the kilometres-long River Trail.

“I tried the Indigenous Hot Stone Spa at the Riverstone Spa, a short walk away from The Forks.” For the readers of the Toronto newspaper, he related that The Forks possesses a covered market, the Children’s Museum, the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, bars, restaurants, the Inn at The Forks, and by 2010 will include the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Of course, the latter is the first national museum outside of Ottawa-Hull and a symbol of pride to Winnipeggers and Manitobans.

Richler’s enthusiasm for Winnipeg is apparently becoming infectious. What he saw as fun and adventure, modesty and thrift, is gradually being recognized as the city’s strengths. A recent Destination Winnipeg survey has found that one-third of Canadian adults would consider moving to Winnipeg for jobs and economic opportunities. People from Ontario, Québec and Atlantic Canada overwhelmingly believe Winnipeg’s economy is doing better than their home province’s.

Perceptions about Winnipeg are changing, but it takes an outside writer to reminder us why. “If authentic discovery, rather than easy conversation about some proven trendy destination is what you want, then here is a city that absolutely must be visited,” ended Richler.