We were born here, what’s your excuse?
having moved to Winnipeg almost five years ago from my hometown of Dawson Creek, B.C., this is a question I am often asked to answer. This slogan greets the Simpson clan in an episode featuring Winnipeg, and it is something of a rallying cry for born-and-bred Winnipeggers who seem to want nothing but to escape the confines of the heart of the continent.
Answering succinctly, however, is not quite so easy. Generally, I respond with “Have you ever been to Dawson Creek?” Since the answer is almost always in the negative, I am off the hook for a real answer.
Then again, Dawson Creek isn’t really that bad a place. Much like Winnipeg, it has its charms and its seedy underbelly. What it lacked, for me, was something that is harder to define.
Whatever it was, Winnipeg’s got it. Whether it be the plethora of seedy drinking establishments that provide quality live music at bargain basement prices or the diverse socially active publications and organizations that Winnipeg is home to, this prairie pothole has a character unmatched in Canada’s western provinces, if not the country as a whole.
Could it be our proximity to three distinct biospheres — tall grass prairie, mixed grassland and boreal forest — exemplified best within the confines of Riding Mountain National Park but enjoyable each on their own merits with just a short drive? Or maybe it has something to do with our ability to visit America, that bastion of cheap booze, smokes and gambling that lies but a few hours to the south? I’m not sure, but these are certainly part and parcel to Winnipeg’s allure.
Maybe it’s my family history that has something to do with why I, B.C. born and raised, have made my home in Winnipeg. My mother was born in Winnipeg, and I spent many summer days at my grandparents’ spread in East St. Paul, nestled between the Henderson Highway and the Red. My dad was born in Neepawa, and I’ve spent my share of time in the Lily Capital. My Birnie grandparents are buried there, today, and not far from Margaret Laurence, who babysat my uncles before she herself moved to Winnipeg.
Both my parents attended the University of Manitoba at one point, and each owned houses in the city at some time before they met and moved west. Each summer, my siblings and I were hauled across the prairies in a minivan and spent time soaking up Manitoba at its best. I have fond memories of the pandas at the Assiniboine Zoo, the Bombers trouncing Hamilton, and the Goldeyes playing both at Polo Park and the Forks. I remember my first Folk Fest experience as a mess of mud and hippies that my brother and sister were dragged to so my mom could see the Rankin Family on a Sunday afternoon, and whose recordings we were to receive no reprieve from on the long drive back to Dawson at the end of summer. It was years before I gave the Fest a second chance.
When I was older, and discovering the joys of independent music, Winnipeg became a mecca to my adolescent self, and remains more or less so today. Kick ass bands like Kittens and Propagandhi — not to mention Red Fisher, Swallowing Shit and the Bonaduces — provided a lifeline of fiercely independent, progressive tunes for a kid growing up in an even more remote shit hole than Winnipeg. The music these bands delivered was a godsend, and certainly influenced not only my current choice of residence, but also my political and social outlook on this world we’re born into. My life can be divided into a very clear “before” and “after,” based on one lucky trip to Sam the Record Man back at the end of the last century when I bought my first Kittens disc.
Ten years later, here I am. I live in Winnipeg, I like living here and I never sit up at night, grumbling to my pals about how shitty everything is here, and how much I wish I lived in some other shit hole, like Montreal or — god help me if I ever even think it — Toronto. If I wanted to live somewhere else, I would. There’s my excuse, now what’s yours?