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  • Laughing in the face of Old Man Winter: Canada's other festival season


    Published 12/03/2012 07:00:03

    WINNIPEG - The coming weeks are a time of hibernation for many Canadians. As temperatures plummet, it's only natural to want to huddle indoors near the warm glow of a fireplace or big-screen television and wait for the depth of winter to pass.

    But for many people, it's a time of celebration. It's also a chance to show Old Man Winter that we Canadians can still, even if just for a few hours, face winter head-on as the early settlers did with an axe, a tent and some hearty food and drink.

    "Even if it's -40 C, people will be out there. They really want to enjoy winter and they embrace it," says Irina Ivanov-Bissonnette, spokesperson for the Festival du Voyageur.

    The festival is held every year in mid-February in the St. Boniface neighbourhood of Winnipeg and brings visitors back to the early 19th century, when a small fort on the very site played an important role in the fur trade.

    There are similar festivals held across the country in January and February, including the Voyageur Winter Carnival in Thunder Bay, Ont., the Yukon Sourdough Rendez-Vous in Whitehorse, and the biggest one of all — the Quebec Winter Carnival.

    They have a common theme — instead of hiding from winter, get outside, interact with hundreds or thousands of others, and celebrate the often cold, harsh history of Canada's development. The Yukon Sourdough Rendez-Vous bills itself as "the only legal cure for the cabin fever blues.”

    "We want to encourage people to embrace the weather, embrace that time of the year," said Rendez-Vous Society executive director Jon Solberg.

    "It's about actually getting out in the community and getting active in different events that are going on."

    Festival-goers at Rendez-Vous, scheduled to run Feb. 21-24 in 2013, may find themselves carrying large bags of flour on their backs, throwing an axe or racing in snowshoes — all in temperatures that can dip below -20 C. The festival celebrates the Yukon gold rush and recreates, to some extent, how people lived in the late 1800s.

    "It's celebrating the pioneers that ... got to Dawson City in 1898," Solberg said.

    At the Festival du Voyageur, the focus is on 1815, a time when the Hudson Bay Company and the NorthWest Company were vying for control of the fur trade. Actors in period costume inside a recreated Fort Gibraltar greet you as if you have stepped back in time. Any mention of Canada is likely to be met with a quizzical expression and a reminder that Canada is to the East. You, monsieur, are in Rupert's Land.

    The period actors show visitors how to make tools, fur coats and other goods, and how meals were prepared and food was stored in an isolated Prairie outpost.

    "We call it a living history museum. People really get to interact and see how they lived back then," Ivanov-Bissonnette said.

    There is also a bit of poetic licence to the festival's take on history. Just outside the fort, period actors play out a battle between French- and English-speaking soldiers that looks like something from the Plains of Abraham in Quebec. The battle portrays a skirmish between the forces of Lord Selkirk and La Verendrye that never actually happened. Selkirk, a Scottish settler, and La Verendrye, a French explorer, lived at different times of the west's development.

    The festival, now in its 44th year, is the largest Francophone festival in western Canada, attracting about 95,000 people over 10 days. The 2013 edition is scheduled to run Feb. 15-24.

    Not everything about the festival is a throwback. At night, live music, much of it modern rock and folk, is performed inside huge heated tents. Francophone groups from across Canada are featured. The licensed bar serves modern brands of beer along with caribou, an old-time blend of red wine, whisky and maple sugar.

    And if the weather does turn particularly nasty, there are options.

    At the Festival du Voyageur, the temperatures have sometimes risen to the point where snow and ice sculptures melt. Other years, temperatures have dipped below -40 C, leaving all but the bravest souls scurrying for cover in heated tents.

    In Whitehorse, such temperatures are rare. But two years ago, the thermometer dipped to -25 C and a fierce wind blew at 40 kilometres an hour.

    "With our main performance tent, we put heat in there," said Solberg. "We warm it up pretty good. It's a bit of a windbreak and a shelter for people to go to."


    If You Go...

    — The Festival du Voyageur is held in Whittier Park, east of downtown Winnipeg, a short drive or taxi ride from downtown hotels.

    — There are several direct flights to Whitehorse from Vancouver. Travel from most other cities is not non-stop.


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