Festival du Voyageur season is here again. This is the 45th annual festival. Like every year, reminders of the Francophone festival start showing up a couple of weeks prior in the form of big blocks of snow in the St. Boniface area scattered along Provencher Boulevard, by Dominion Center and at Voyageur Park. The festival is best known for these amazing snow sculptures which attract artists from all over the world who put in many hours and days creating these unique masterpieces. There were a few artists still working on them during the opening ceremonies on Friday night.
The evening festivities kicked off before 6pm Friday at the Forks at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers on the frozen ice. Wine and snacks were served up as the crowd grew bigger and bigger. The first 100 arrivals received a free day pass to Voyageur Park. People came from North Dakota and Minnesota, snow kings and snow queens, and a group of Vulcans. Many enjoyed various hot and cold beverages keeping warm around the fire pits and were treated to a few tunes by the band ‘Red Moon Road.’
At the start of the torch light walk, soldiers dressed in period costumes lined up and fired their rifles in the air. The people who gathered there were handed festival candles to light their way along the river walk north along the Red River, over the Provencher Bridge, past Louis Riel’s gravesite, through the St. Boniface Cathedral, then back north on Tache to Voyageur Park. Many in the group of hundreds also carried torches. There was singing of french songs and many cheers of ‘HeHo’ along the way. The congregation was led by Shelly Glover and two burly police officers in long fur coats. Following them were people carrying Canadian, Manitoban, American and Metis flags. Everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. I even talked to two young ladies from Brazil, Ursula and her friend who were very excited to be here to take part in the festivities.
Once we arrived at the Park in front of the Historic Fort Gibraltar, originally built at the Forks as a North West Company trading post, the opening ceremonies began. The visitors were welcomed and Festival President Genevieve Clement addressed the crowd after which the soldiers fired their rifles once again followed by a fireworks display.
Walking through the gates at Fort Gibraltar one is transported back to a bygone era with many in costume playing the roles of the people who used to inhabit the area. There are the blacksmith and carpenter cabins where the blacksmiths and carpenters use the same crude tools of the time to do their craft. There is the fur trading cabin where the early settlers used to trade their furs for tea and other necessities. Then there is the sleeping quarters where after a tough day the early settlers would amuse themselves with storytelling and songs.
Two fiddle players, one washboard player and one guitar player were on hand to provide some traditional french songs, while many in the audience sang along. One woman, Ashley, requested the musicians play Red River Jig and as soon as they started playing it she got up and did the jig. I talked with Joanne, the mother of 19-year-old fiddler, Veronique, who has played since three. Joanne has been to every festival since it started and Veronique has been to every one, including when she was in the womb.
Then it was off to the many heated tents. Each tent had well stocked bars of course but also served up various types of food. The poutine and pea soup being favourites for many, but they also have pizza, fries and veggie burgers. And of course lots of hot chocolate. One tent even has rolled maple syrup which is poured out on top of a table of snow, left to cool for a bit then rolled onto a stick. Yummy. A huge souvenir tent is also there where you can take home a nice memento of the festival.
Each tent has a stage and many of the bands had the people dancing on the wood chip dance floor. The line ups to get into the tents were long but they moved pretty quickly and once you got inside you couldn’t help but feel the warmth and good vibes of the people.
Other activities include workshops on Metis beading, sash weaving, flint knapping, coopering, wood working, First Nations storytelling, moccasin making and many other fun events and activities. As well, on Monday, February 17th, Louis Riel Day, visitors can be part of history and help create the largest ‘living’ Metis flag by wearing blue and white. Participants are asked to meet at the south tower in Fort Gibraltar at 3 pm.
And at 5:30 pm on that day there will also be a fiddling and jigging workshop. Also, that day admission is free to the St. Boniface Museum. Club St. B will host the Voyageur Games February 17-20th at 7 pm with the playoffs on February 22 at 1 pm. The Games include leg wresting, voyageur wrestling, pillow fighting, tug of war and log sawing.
Of course, we mustn’t forget the beard-growing contest and the fiddling contest; Festival must sees! And for the kids, there’s a large children’s area with a very long slide for tobogganing, as well as snow shoeing and sleigh rides.
Heho! The festival continues till February 23.
All photos by Doug Kretchmer