“Does it look like a block of tofu?” I asked.
“That’s a rock. Look to the left,” the guide instructed.
I shifted the magnified eyeballs and locked onto a face like one that once lived among the stuffed animal menagerie on my bed — a polar bear. But this one, alive and wild, would never stand for a bow on its head.
A few days earlier, I’d landed in Manitoba with a rucksack full of preconceived notions. For instance, I thought that polar bears appear in Churchill only when Hudson Bay freezes over. Correction: They roam the town’s shores year-round, even when the sun shines deep into the night. I imagined prairie grasses, not boreal forest; cold temperatures, not a heat advisory. At least I was right about the beluga whales: They do summer in Manitoba, and they don’t mind sharing their pool with land dwellers.
I confess, a giant question mark hovered over the midsection of Canada. Though I could easily picture the western and eastern swaths of the country, I blanked on Manitoba.
That hole in the map, however, wouldn’t remain empty for long. By week’s end, I would fill it with images, experiences and real, not assumed, impressions.
History and heroes
Let’s start with some simple facts: Manitoba, one of the Prairie provinces, sits like the nose on Canada’s face, between the cheeks of Ontario and Saskatchewan, the chin of North Dakota and Minnesota, and the forehead of Nunavut, a federal territory with a sizable Inuit community. About 60 percent of the population (1.2 million) lives in the capital (Winnipeg), an urban concentration that no other province can claim. Another boast: The country’s second-largest French-speaking community resides here, so you might want to brush up on your conjugations.
In the history books, one of the most famous local figures is Louis Riel, who founded the province in 1870 and advocated the rights of the Metis, descendants of European and indigenous unions. His grave is in the tidy cemetery of Saint-Boniface Cathedral, in the French district across the Red River from downtown Winnipeg.
Among childhood sentimentalists, however, the hero of Winnipeg is Winnie the Pooh, who was more than just an imaginary friend. A.A. Milne’s literary character was inspired by an orphaned cub adopted by a Canadian veterinarian, who named his ursine pet after his home town. He eventually donated the bear to the London Zoo, where it received the attentions of one Christopher Robin, Milne’s nonfictional son.
Assiniboine Park, the city’s version of Central Park (landscape architect Frederick G. Todd was an acolyte of Frederick Law Olmsted), contains homages to Winnie. A sculpture adorns the zoo’s grounds, and a topiary Pooh graces the front lawn of the Pavilion Gallery Museum, which exhibits artifacts related to the honey-pot-bellied bear in its Pooh Gallery.