Adding to tradition

“Find your place in history and then Instagram it” could very well be the new motto for the Festival du Voyageur.

The winter festival originated in 1969 as a way to honour the French-Canadian culture and history of St. Boniface, but also as a way to stimulate the city’s economy during the winter months when the community used to all but shut down. Although city-dwellers now embrace the winter months, the festival is a fixture of our city’s collective cultural memory, occurring annually once the cruelly cold month of January releases its grip on Winnipeg.

“It always seems to happen when you feel like the winter is never going to end,” says Irina Ivanov Bissonnette, marketing and communications director for the Festival.

Although it’s 43 years old, this year’s festival promises to be more relevant and hipper than ever.

“The staples are always there and tradition is a big part of it for us,” says Bissonnette. “But we do always try and keep it fresh to have something for everyone and engage new cultures and people of different ages.”

The programming this year makes sure to honour those old staples; the ice sculpture competition will bring competitors from 10 different countries, from Guatemala to Estonia, to create 20 sculptures inside the park. Bissonnette says that some of them have never seen snow, so they are partnered with Canadian sculptors who can teach them how to work with it.

This year will see the return of last year’s popular DJ Night, but will also feature an all-new lineup of the Devotion crew DJs and the Lytics. A poutine bar will be on hand, offering different selections of the favourite dish of modern voyageurs. Foodies can get their fill at the Top Chef-style pea soup cook-off with chefs from around the city trying to impress the celebrity judges with their interpretations of a more classic French-Canadian dish.

While keeping things different means attracting new crowds, it also means attracting the same crowd by diversifying the programming from year to year. This year Festival is adding a new feature called “voyageur apprenticeships,” with demonstrations that will take place in Fort Gibraltar’s Historic Cabins. French and Metis artisans will teach interactive workshops and impart their knowledge and skills to a new generation. This includes crafting walking sticks, sash weaving, and alpaca wool-based crafts.

Bissonnette says that they try to stress that this is not only a celebration of French-Canadians who settled and colonized the region, but the Metis and First Nations people who were first on the land and played a large role in the founding of Manitoba. Louis Riel Day is one of the biggest days of programming for the park and always brings out some of the largest crowds.

As a less reverent nod to the iconic Metis revolutionary, this will be the second year of the Louis Riel Look-a-like Contest.

“It’s really just about trying to make history fun and interactive so it’s more accessible to all kinds of people,” laughs Bissonnette.

Whether you like to kick it classically with maple syrup, tobogganing, and jigging, or if you’re more into poutine and DJs, the festival will certainly make February a little more manageable.

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Photo by Dan Harper.