Why Winnipeg is a question many people reading this post are probably asking. Having thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Whitehorse and Yellowknife in northern Canada, I wanted to keep exploring the country. When looking at places to go, I noticed the government of the province of Manitoba was subsidizing a new direct flight from Los Angeles to Winnipeg to boost the film industry there.
When visiting big cities, I generally like to time my trip with a sports game. Winnipeg has an NHL team, the Jets. The one problem with hockey is that it is played in the winter when Canada is a frozen tundra. By going to a very early-season game, I can see the team and not completely freeze. I found a game in early October on a Thursday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights.
The price for the flight was cheap…for the one way. Unfortunately, the direct flight did not run on the weekends and to avoid waiting 5 days or paying $300 was an Air Canada flight connecting in Vancouver leaving at 6:00 on the Saturday. This would give me about 1.5 days in Winnipeg plus a full day in Vancouver which I also had not visited. So, Winnipeg would be a go!
October 19, 2023: Great Suspicions
My WestJet flight to Winnipeg took 3.5 hours. Upon landing I filled out the immigration form and met with the officer. He asked why I was going to Canada and said that I wanted to see the NHL game and see Winnipeg. He asked why I would want to see the NHL in Winnipeg when I could see the same teams play in Los Angeles. He also was suspicious as to why I would only come to Winnipeg for “just one day”. I didn´t have the heart to tell him that I thought Winnipeg was a one-day city but did say that the flights later in the weekend were very expensive. He did not buy my story and put a big red X on my form.
This then put me in line to talk to a second officer who asked similar questions and again did not buy my story. He then circled the X on the form, which eventually led me into a back room for interrogation. Had they never seen a tourist before in Winnipeg?!
The third officer asked to see my ticket to the game and my Airbnb reservation. I also offered to show him this blog. All this convinced him that I was “here for a good time” and was let through. This experience will be in my podium of most intense immigration experiences along with Algiers, Algeria, and the Cayman Islands. Nevertheless, I made it through and was determined to have a good time.
My Airbnb hostess Linnea picked me up from the airport! She profusely apologized for the immigration officers´ and said that I was going to enjoy Winnipeg. Winnipeg must have the nicest people in North America as it is Midwest Nice but multiplied by Canada. The weather was nice too: 10C.
Linnea lives in rural Manitoba 3 hours from Winnipeg. However, she recently signed a contract with a company here in Winnipeg, so she purchased a 2-bedroom apartment in town and rents out the second bedroom on Airbnb. When I booked the listing, I was going to be the very first guest, but a last-minute booking 2 days earlier stole my thunder.
The apartment was in the downtown Winnipeg 2 blocks from the Manitoba capitol building. Here is the listing: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/902500358347710752?source_impression_id=p3_1700158747_3sdSOAzML%2BQzph6X
After settling in, I headed out to get dinner before the game. Based on a recommendation from one of Maisie´s friends who has family in Winnipeg, I went to VJ´s Drive In for a burger and milkshake. They do not accept credit cards but do accept debit. Unfortunately, they do not accept American debit cards, so I had to go to an ATM at a nearby bar. This cash withdrawal was flagged by my bank, who froze my account. It seems like everybody is confused that I am in Winnipeg!
After 20 minutes on the phone with the bank, my account was unfrozen, and I was able to get the cash. The VJ´s employees were very understanding. The burger and shake were fantastic by the way.
Now full, I headed to the Canada Life Centre for the hockey game. With a capacity of 15,000, Canada Life Centre is the smallest arena in the NHL, and it definitely felt smaller than others. Despite the smaller capacity, the arena was maybe 2/3 full. This surprised me because I have heard great things about the Jets fans and the defending Cup champions should be a noteworthy opponent. There was also another storyline: Winnipeg goalie Laurent Brossoit used to play for the Jets and won the Stanley Cup with the Golden Knights before returning to Winnipeg this year. This game was his first against his former team. I later learned that this was the 2nd lowest attended game in franchise history since the team relocated from Atlanta in 2011. Local hockey podcasters and bloggers were embarrassed and worried for the team´s future in Winnipeg.
The game turned out to be very close. Vegas won, but the game was tied with 5 minutes left and the open net dagger only came in the final minute. The five Vegas fans in attendance were very happy.
All in all, the experience was positive: the fans were good, the arena was nice and everything was very reasonably priced. They even had a deal with Crown Royal to give everybody a free shot of whiskey. Can´t beat that!
October 20, 2023: The Peg
This was my full day to explore Winnipeg and I was determined to make the most of it.
I started the day walking along the Assiniboine River to its confluence with the Red River of the North (which I visited a few years ago in Grand Forks, North Dakota). The riverfront park was unmaintained and had a few homeless people but to be fair, fall is not the optimal time to be here. In the summer, the riverfront is a popular place to exercise, and, in winter, the river freezes over and becomes a skating track just like in Ottawa.
After reaching the east end of downtown, I crossed over to the east side and entered St. Boniface, the largest French-speaking community in Western Canada. Suddenly, the street signs changed to bilingual French/English.
Saint Boniface was founded as Roman Catholic mission to cater to the French fur traders. The Cathedrale Saint-Boniface stands on the land of the original church. The current structure is the third church on the site. The second, more impressive church burned down in 1968 leaving just the front façade, which still remains. Behind the impressive front is the mediocre modern cathedral. A real bait and switch!
In the churchyard are numerous important graves in Manitoba history including Louis Riel considered a founding father of Manitoba. He led a provisional government that negotiated the terms of entry into the Canadian Confederation He also was part of the Metis, an ethnic group of mixed Indigenous and European heritage and fought for their rights, literally. Riel was then exiled to Montana for aiding in the execution of a Canadian national. Eventually, he returned to Canada to lead an insurrection against the government where he was captured, tried for treason, and executed. Despite his controversial legacy, he is undoubtedly one of the most famous figures in Manitoba history.
Just to the east of the cathedral is a museum of local French history located in the oldest building in Winnipeg. It apparently contains many personal artifacts of Louis Riel including locks of his hair and his moccasins. However, it did not open until later in the day and I sadly just didn´t have time to visit.
For breakfast, I stopped by a French bakery for a croissant. It was heavy, which is my mark of a good croissant because it is most likely made with lots of butter.
I then walked back over to downtown to visit the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, the only national museum located outside of Ottawa. The iconic building is featured on the $20 bill.
Inside are 6 stories of exhibits covering Canadian and global issues. Human rights is an exceedingly tricky subject to cover as everybody has a different moral code and morality has changed drastically over time. In the first room in huge print, the museum defined human rights by quoting the United Nations´ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states “All humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.
The first floor covered Canadian rights starting with indigenous people´s rights. In Canada, there are three distinct Indigenous groups: Inuit (a large tribe that inhabits arctic Canada), First Nations (which covers all the other native tribes that lived in Canada prior to the arrival of Europeans), and the Metis. I don´t know why Inuit are not considered a First Nation, but I learned in Yellowknife that Nunavut was carved out from the Northwest Territories in 1999 so that the Inuit can have a self-governing territory.
While indigenous groups and rights are well-defined in Canada, I took issue with the fact that the museum did not define the word indigenous. This is relevant because the museum frequently referenced indigenous groups outside of Canada. The very first exhibit in the museum was a video of a Mayan man in Guatemala. While I´m sure there are many more, but I thought of three situations where defining “indigenous” is important: 1) Iceland was uninhabited until its discovery by the Vikings in the 9th century. Are the Vikings indigenous people of Iceland or are they colonizers who came from Scandinavia? 2) Numerous African tribes moved throughout their history such as the Ewe tribe who relocated from Nigeria to Togo in the 1600´s, well after the European discovery of the region but prior to European colonization. Are Ewe indigenous people and if so to where? 3) The crux of the issue of the moment in Israel/Palestine. The Jews lived on the land 2,000 years ago but were forcibly removed by the Romans before finally returning in the 19th century and forming their own country after World War II. Are the Jews indigenous people to the Levant or have they lost their “indigeneity” due to their prolonged forced exile which over time has changed their looks and language? I posed these questions to a museum docent. She said that indigenous people are original inhabitants of the land, are not colonizers and have been on the land for at least 100 years but admitted that the museum should define this term. I found the response insufficient.
Other Canadian issues that were brought up in the museum included the right to speak French (or English in Quebec), the right to private healthcare, the right to assisted suicide if suffering a terrible disease, the right to change your last name to match your spouse´s upon marriage (currently illegal in Quebec), suffrage, and freedom of religion.
The upper floors covered the Holocaust and other genocides around the world such as Rwanda in 1994, the Armenian Genocide, and the Holodomor when the Soviet government deliberately created a famine in Ukraine (history seems to repeat itself).
After all the heavy subject matter, I was treated to a sweeping view of Winnipeg from the top floor.
While no museum can nail every point, especially on such a tricky subjective topic, I think that this museum is worth the visit and gets you thinking.
Just south of the Human Rights Museum is The Forks, a 6,000-year-old Indigenous meeting place and location of the original Winnipeg town site at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Nothing from those eras still stands, but the site is a public park with plenty of public buildings. The most popular building in The Forks is the top-notch food hall.
Reddit suggested a Sri Lankan place and a pizza spot. The Sri Lankan line was too long so I got the pizza. Mine had ham, honey and jalapeño and is as good as anything in NYC such as Rubirosa which makes a similar pie (I lived in New York for two years and can say this).
I rested up back at the Airbnb before heading to the Legislative Assembly (Provincial capitol) for their once weekly tour which happens to be Friday at 14:00. The building is topped by the iconic “Golden Boy” which is often used as a symbol of Winnipeg and Manitoba as a whole. I invited Linnea´s husband (who was visiting from their home in rural Manitoba) to come with me on the tour since he had never been inside in decades. The tour ended up being super popular and we were the final ones allowed on the tour before they turned people away. Unlike in the US, the public cannot enter unescorted.
The central stone chamber is dominated by two bison sculptures that are standing in place purely by their own weight.
After visiting a reception room and the rotunda, we entered the actual assembly room which is clad in many mosaics of Greek/Roman women representing ideals such as “Justice” and “Prosperity”. Unlike in a traditional parliament chamber with two opposing benches to represent the government and opposition, the MLAs (members of the legislative assembly) sit on individual desks in a semicircle much like in legislative bodies in the US.
Down the street from the Legislative Assembly is the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The highlight of this museum is the world´s largest collection of Inuit art. Why Winnipeg? I have no idea. This genre of art is not my favorite, so I found the museum okay.
Having run out of time to visit museums in the center, I headed back to the Airbnb. In what is the nicest gesture ever offered by an Airbnb host, Linnea offered to give me her car to drive around to visit the famous Assiniboine Park in the western suburbs.
The drive took 20 minutes in the rush hour traffic. The city park contains numerous attractions including a Zoo just like Central Park or St. Louis´s Forest Park. The newest and most visually stunning attraction is The Leaf, an indoor botanical garden which opened less than a year ago. This architectural marvel looks like the Singapore Airport with a waterfall and tropical biomes surrounded by a glass dome.
Afterwards, I also visited the English garden and an area containing work by Leo Mol, a Ukrainian born Canadian sculptor.
For dinner, I discovered that the Sri Lankan place in the Forks Market had a second location near the park, so I was still able to get the famed eggplant curry.
For dessert, I visited the Bridge Drive-In (BDI) for their famous milkshakes. The place is a summertime institution but was understandably empty in October.
Back at the Airbnb, Linnea´s husband told me that today was Linnea´s birthday (she was too humble to mention this)! We drank beers and they ate dinner before I retreated to my room to give them the moment and to rest up for my ungodly 5:50 AM flight the next morning.
At 3:30, I headed to the airport for the flight to Vancouver.
There is no other way to say it: Winnipeg is awesome. The center is lively and walkable, and the people were all exceedingly friendly. I would say Winnipeg needs two days to see everything: one for the center (everything I saw plus the Exchange district, the Saint-Boniface Museum and the Manitoba Museum) and one for the suburbs (Assiniboine Park and the Royal Canadian Mint). Since I only spent one full day here, I definitely feel the need to return. While I visited in October to see the hockey game, summer is the optimal time to come here.
Winnipeg is also a launching pad to explore the rest of Manitoba including Churchill (easiest place on earth to spot a polar bear), Lake Winnipeg and some of the forested areas along the Ontario border.