I’ve come to learn that when it comes to Canada and the winter, there’s no such thing as bad weather— just the wrong clothes. So I was more than prepared for anything that Winnipeg in February could throw at me. I was in town for the Festival du Voyageurs, an annual winter celebration with foot-stomping live music and dancing, stunning snow sculptures and the delicious eats of a sugar shack. Not to mention the other culinary features common to an eastern Canadian menu, Tortière pie, poutine, and piled high dishes of beans spangled with salty ham.
The festival takes place at Fort Gibraltar, a perfect reconstruction of a working North West company fort set in the year 1815. It celebrates the joie-de-vivre of the voyageurs, the hard-working and hard-living French-Canadian employees of the North West Company who trapped furs and traded goods across Quebec— and what would become Manitoba— between the 1680s and 1870s. The original fort was based at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers at The Forks, which is now a popular tourist destination packed with restaurants and a lively public market, but for over 6,000 years it was a key trading post and meeting place for early Aboriginal peoples and then the European fur traders.
The reconstructed fort is in Winnipeg’s french-speaking quarter of St. Boniface, and as I walked through its grounds, I heard French language songs and saw people wearing ‘ceinture fléchée’ — the arrow-patterned sashes that the French-Canadians traditionally wore in the 1800s. I love to step back in time at a ‘living history’ museum where the staff dress in the authentic clothes of the period and interact with you as though they really are from that era. Fort Gibraltar recreates life along the Red River in 1815 at the height of the fur trade. While you’re at the fort you get to meet the people who lived and worked there at that time, from an authentic blacksmith’s forge to a stacked-high busy trading post.
Inside the fort there was a teepee where I met Steve Greyeyes. As he stirred a steaming pot of pea soup over a roaring fire, he talked to me about the life of the Aboriginal peoples who lived and traded along the Red River route. He explained the great cultural exchange that happened when the French fur traders arrived, “We took on their culture fast, from smoking imported tobacco to using pans to cook with,” he added “but they took our ways too, they wore our clothing for warmth and made scaled up models of our native birch bark canoes to travel across the country.”
I explored the rest of the grounds, as the icy wind whipped my skin scarlet. I snuggled into my Canada Goose parka and pulled my scarf across my face. I tried to imagine existing in these conditions without the benefits of modern life— no hot water, no electricity, no central heating, and no down-stuffed winter coat and mittens. They were made of hardy stuff, these voyageurs, just one afternoon walking in their footsteps was enough for me, but how fascinating to be able to take a peep at what their lives must have been like.