The Canadian Prairie: Crossing That Awesome Space to Winnipeg, Manitoba
An unexpected surprise was meeting our friends Gregor and Maria from Poland. He is a performer for Cirque de Soilé and she is a librarian and scholar. They were traveling with Cirque throughout North America and they happened to be in Calgary now. We fell in love with their two adorable children Benedict and Maria while we had coffee in the library.
As we drive east, we really feel like we have entered the vast sea of grass and big skies of the Canadian prairies. The scale is humbling and hard to comprehend. But somehow it feels familiar and comforting after growing up in the vastness of the Sacramento Valley Today we stopped and photographed the libraries in the small towns of Brooks, Swift Current and Moose Jaw. The library in Brooks, Alberta works with a large Somali population that came here to work in the huge meat-packing plant on the edge of town. The library has many foreign-language books and the small town has many Africans walking the streets, some in their beautiful native clothing.
We are happy to enter the new province of Saskatchewan. There we photographed the Chinook Regional Library in Swift Current. The town is exceptional in its austerity and its library shows that in its beautiful but severe architecture. Moose Jaw has an exceptional name and is a welcome island in a prairie sea. The gangster Al Capone used this as a haven for his whiskey smuggling operation into the United States during Prohibition. During this time, the town approached Andrew Carnegie for a $50,000 grant to build their library. He didn’t believe their town population numbers and refused the request. The city then raised its own money and built their beautiful library for $100,000. Take that, Mr. Carnegie!
Our new Prius is working well but we realize that there are many things we need to learn about our new computer-with-wheels. One surprise was a sign that popped up on the dash that said I should get a cup of coffee because I was swerving too much. The whole trip we have been trying to live in the Eco-Zone!
Fortunately, we pulled into Regina, Saskatchewan after a long day’s drive before the car could take over and tell us to go to bed.
Today we follow our son Walker’s orders and drive 4 ½ hours north of Regina to the tiny, mostly Native community of Duck Lake, SK. We drive through several cells of torrential downpours into brilliant but sometimes cloudy skies.
Duck Lake is the site of a great 19th century battle between Metis (mixed race Native-White) people and Canadian militias. It was the start of the uprising called the Northwest Rebellion. The old Victoria school is now the Wapiti Public Library. On the side is a great mural to the Native man called Almighty Voice. Through a series of tragic events he was eventually killed by government troops for killing a cow. Duck Lake is also the site of one of the last government schools for Indigenous children that only closed in 1996. These schools were one of the darker chapters of Canadian westward expansion. Native children were taken away from their parents and were forced to abandon their Native culture. They were forbidden to speak their own language and were forced to learn how to read and write in English. They were often shunned or disowned by their families when they eventually returned. This tragedy was played out in the US as well with terrible consequences. It also brings up uncomfortable questions for our project where we have always championed education. In Duck Lake the school probably had good intentions. But here education and literacy became a form of cultural genocide rather than a source of hope and a way out to a better future. Lots to learn from the Native people of Canada!
We spent the night in the northern city of Saskatoon, SK. I fell in love with the tidy small bungalows and tree-lined streets of this city. However, our motel seemed seedy (and cheap!) and I think the immediate surrounding area was run by Vietnamese mafia. The restaurant where we had dinner was delightful and our waitress identifies herself as a modern Mennonite. There are plenty of traditional Mennonites living here and in Manitoba. They are part of the vast web of religious diversity in this country.
We visited two libraries today. The first was in a strip mall in the tiny town of Lanigan, SK. It was not pretty or historically interesting but was pretty typical of small-town Canadian libraries. The other was in the larger town of Yorkton. The architecture was brutalist and didn’t even have windows. As sad as the building was, I was still glad that there was a library in this remote prairie town. As was true of most Canadian libraries that we visited, this one was filled with people.
But most of today was spent enjoying the beautiful Canadian landscape. In between the cloud bursts and brilliant sunshine, we saw several dazzling banded rainbows. We are driving through an area settled by many Ukrainian people. As we come to the crest of a hill near the small village of Insinger, we see the beautiful spires of a tiny Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It reminds us of our 2016 trip to Ukraine and I admired the strength and courage of the people that made that long and difficult journey from there to here.
We are also inspired by the music of some great Canadian musicians including Neil Young, the McGarrigle Sisters and especially Leonard Cohen. Poetry, prairies, podcasts and pounding rain accompany us throughout the day. After a very long day we arrived in the capitol of Manitoba – Winnipeg. It has a violent reputation and is called the murder capital of Canada. Parts of it are pretty dicey but not the neighborhood where we spend two nights called the Forks.
The Millennium Centennial Library of Winnipeg is located in the City Center. It is both beautiful and a well- run library. It has two social workers on staff to deal with people experiencing hard times. It had an Indigenous People’s Center, an Idea Mill (Maker Space) and is the hometown library of Winnie the Pooh.
We visited St. John’s Branch Library which is located in the most dangerous part of Winnipeg. The building was an old Carnegie Library had a really nice new addition. This seemed to be the kind of library that would really make a difference in this difficult place. One librarian was Ukrainian and had worked as a librarian there. In the basement was an amazing exhibit on the tragic Indian Residential Schools of Canada.
We also visited the incredible the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It told a big story throughout the world but we we only had time to focus on the Canadian Indigenous People and the Residential Schools.