Killerpeg, Manitoba. August 2 – 4, 2006.
I kind of like Winnipeg. I vaguely remember a joke I used to tell as a kid (adapted from a much dirtier joke I once overheard a drunken uncle tell at a baptism in Portugal) where, according to my Canadianized version, the punchline was “I’m going to Winnipeg.” It had something to do with taking the train and wearing a big skirt, and though the details have faded, I do remember it being really funny… I think. Until we pulled into the VIA Rail station at Broadway and Main, that was pretty much the extent of my impression of this city: vaguely funny, vaguely dirty, fuzzy around the edges.
In all my random emails, texts and myspace comments to friends since arriving here, I’ve been telling pretty much everyone the same thing — the vibe is hard and harsh, but the street art is interesting, folks look you straight in the eye when you pass them on the street, and you always know exactly where you stand. There’s a certain kind of simultaneous vibrancy and heaviness in the air. I like it. It’s the kind of city I would always trust my gut in, and the kind of city where I would probably get a lot of stuff done. The mosquitoes in these parts are usually brutal (due to conditions created by annual flooding), but 2006, I’m told, has no doubt been a banner year for the mighty wasp.
My kind and generous host in Winnipeg was Dane, better known to Vancouver rap aficionados as Birdapres, and owner of a brand new, beautiful home on an equally beautiful tree-lined street. Pat and Kenji are his roommates (aka emcee Pip Skid and recent Japanese arrival DJ Teramoto), the front garden is gentle and lush, the backyard’s got a BBQ and a set of impossibly tiny deck chairs, and the guest room has its own balcony. Lots of families and working-class folks on the same block. It’s always nice to see kids playing in the middle of the street, like a scene out of the Wonder Years.
Oh wait, I lied. Apart from that weird joke I used to tell as a kid, I did have another impression of Winnipeg, and that’s by way of the portraits painted by the Manitoba-raised rappers and producers on the Peanuts & Corn label. Birdapres is a fairly recent arrival to Winnipeg from the Republic of East Van, but emcees like his roomie Pip and John Smith (who runs The Urban Bakery in town), alongside producer mcenroe, had long established themselves as Manitoba staples. Five years ago, back when I was co-hosting a college radio show in the Maritimes, we got an anonymous late-night phonecall — the muffled voice on the other end hissed the words Fermented Reptile and hung up. That right there was the beginning of my relationship with Peanuts & Corn music, and the beginning of my very own Manitoba story.
My first day in town, I took my time. I wandered along Broadway, cutting through to Portage Ave, and eventually making my way to the Exchange District. Whereas much of the landscape along those two main arteries is a mix-and-match collection of shiny government buildings, smaller brown-brick structures with character, and weirdly bland commercial spaces, the Exchange District definitely has a strongly defined presence. Classy, beautiful spaces. Good energy, the hum of voices, tasty food. The Mondragon Cafe makes a wicked veggie burger, second only to the hemp-pesto burger at Fresh.
I spent a lot of time criss-crossing Broadway and Portage, and each time I was struck by the amount of street art that popped up in seemingly random public (and private) spaces. Lots of mixed-media and textured murals, larger-than-life sidewalk installations, and surreal little sculptures. Even homemade efforts abounded — I caught sight of a pink elephant painted on the dry, cracked banks of the river that runs through town, waiting for the water levels to rise again so that it could take a dip. I also walked by the infamous G-Unit House, where some kids (I assume) had spray painted the sidewalk in both directions with the same message: “Fuck 50 Cent! Stop snitching! G-UNOT” (or something to that effect). There was another big sign in the front window that read: “RIP Proof”. Rap lives on in Winnipeg, take note.
Although Toronto apparently has the country’s largest urban Native population, in Winnipeg they make up a significantly larger percentage of the city’s residents — or at least, through my outsider’s eyes, it definitely seemed that way. I snapped a photo of a First Nations Bank and skimmed a story in the local Free Press about Canada’s first urban reserve — a space right in the heart of downtown Winnipeg.
As compared to Toronto, Montreal or Halifax, Winnipeg is a driving city. It’s not unfriendly to pedestrians—it’s too small to be a mess of un-walkable sprawl just yet—but streets stretch many lanes across, and there was a healthy flow of traffic all along the main arteries downtown. Downtown itself was a bit of a mind-boggler for me. I’ve always thought of a city’s downtown core as being the place to be, where people gather on summertime patios for drinks, wander streets window-shopping, hang out in public squares or gardens, business towers stack up to the sky, that sort of thing. In this town, downtown was synonymous with crime, muggings, stabbings, nothing good. Residents steered clear of downtown, going to lengths even in the daytime to avoid a downtown bus transfer. The city’s response? A marketing campaign designed to re-kindle positive associations with downtown, almost in a touristy vein — Come have a good time, DOWN TOWN! Giant posters and bus shelter ads feature bright-eyed, smiling white families and couples, having a whale of a time on their respective downtown sight-seeing vacations. It’s a little bananas.
While in town, I was informed that Winnipeg is the holder of a number of titles within Canada; among other things, it’s known as being both the car-theft capital and hard liquor-consumption capital in the country. Until recently it was also the murder capital of Canada, but I was later corrected by the residents of Edmonton, Alberta that the title now belongs to them. Apparently the two cities switch off every so often, back and forth, Killerpeg and Deadmonton. Both “dangerous” places, but for vastly different reasons, and with vastly different vibes.
(A week and a half after leaving town, I would find myself wrapped in a conversation with a friend in Vancouver, where she shared her own impressions of Winnipeg. Some friends of hers, while shooting the series “Moccasin Flats” on location there, had apparently found the city way too “hood” for them and didn’t feel fully at ease hanging out at local bars. Her story echoed the sentiments expressed to me by a friend months earlier — a Toronto-raised rap dude who rolled with violence and vice on the regular. “There’s something about Winnipeg,” he told me, “that you just do NOT want to fuck with.” John Smith’s anthem for the city’s North End looped in my headphones and in my mind for the days and weeks leading up to my visit, and I wanted to see that North End, wanted to touch the un-fuck-wit-able-ness. Like the North End in Halifax, or the “rougher” part of any city, calling it the rough part is generally synonymous with coloured faces, louder voices, and different body language. Dangerous to the mainstream in their difference, dangerous to outsiders who don’t quite understand. They are also the most interesting parts of any city, and the parts I find myself the most at-home in.)
My “official” business in town revolved around a meeting with Jino Distasio from the Institute for Urban Studies. It was pouring rain the morning we were to meet, and as I soon learned, when it rains in Winnipeg it doesn’t rain for long, but it sure does come down hard. I hailed the sweetest cab driver in town for a ride — an older South Asian man, about my dad’s age. (He’d been living in Winnipeg for about as long as I’ve been alive, and had a thing or two to teach me about Canadian winters. He made me feel like a total wimp for ever complaining about wind chill in Toronto.)
The offices of the Institute are located within the U of W campus. While it is primarily focused on issues of urbanization, particularly in the Winnipeg region, Jino had much insight to share in overlapping areas of interest. I was lucky to be visiting during a World Cup year, he mentioned, because every community in town had whipped out their respective flags for the occassion. “Suddenly,” he observed, “we could see our neighbours. They became very visible.”
Lucky indeed. The games had long since finished up, but I caught sight of a surprising variety of nationalities and loyalties around town, all played out by way of flags, logos, colours, murals, tiles, signs, clothing and proud thick accents. A Halal meat shop around the corner, a Sudanese church down the way, and an enormous Portuguese flag draped across a crane at a construction site. The Eastern European influence, of course, was a given.
The conversation drifted back to World Cup, and I had to laugh at Jino’s observation that, regardless of which country had won their game, that particular victorious group of people would always go to celebrate in Little Italy. That, he explained, was the spot to be for World Cup.
We discussed not only the urbanization of Winnipeg, but the suburbanization; the inner city, weighed down by a terrible reputation and the flight of wealth, had become a sort of stepping stone for immigrant and disadvantaged communities. The “helping hand” tendency or mentality among these groups of people has seen them band together, share property and housing, and support one another until the members of their make-shift extended family are stable enough to move to a “better” part of town, or afford their own housing. “Part of the immigrant experience,” explained Jino, “is knowing you have to help.” It’s knowing you have to stick together. Loyalties and sacrifices, and the guilt that’s passed down. This part of the story struck a chord.
Because so much of Manitoba’s population, as well as Winnipeg itself, was founded on immigration, the barriers to adjustment and acceptance are perhaps less sharply felt here than in other, more established communities, Jino explained. Aside from the sizable First Nations community, most of the people who live in this region came from somewhere an ocean away, either very recently or just a few short generations ago. The Ukrainians, the Germans, the Italians, the Filipinos. They know displacement. They remember. Their children remember.
* * *
Regrets? I have a few. Mainly I wish I had had more time to wander, explore, get over my camera shyness, and simply soak in the city. I didn’t make it to Chinatown, or to the French Quarter across the river. I wish I’d had more time.
I had been eight hours delayed getting into Winnipeg, and my departing train bound for Edmonton was five hours late in arriving—a total of thirteen hours out of whack. Lucky for me, a wonderful, wonderful woman by the name of Sharon at the Winnipeg VIA Rail station took pity on me, and I got upgraded to First Class at no charge. The high life!
It was late by the time I actually boarded the train, and a warm bed was waiting for me, complete with silver-wrapped chocolate mint. Cozy atop a pile of soft, luxurious pillows from my Lower Berth, I turned up “Galaxy In Turiya” on my headphones and watched Winnipeg’s moonlit curves and edges roll away, away, away… and out of sight.