Photo by Dan Harper Photography, courtesy of Festival du Voyageur.
Like Minnesota, winter in Canada is marked by shorter days and cooler weather, but it’s also when the country hosts some of its most vibrant festivals. In Quebec it’s Carnaval de Québec; in Ontario it’s Winterlude; in Manitoba it’s Festival du Voyageur, a decades-old event that transforms the city’s French quarter, Saint-Boniface, into a winter wonderland filled with French Canadian and Aboriginal influences.
While the first Festival du Voyageur was organized by a few determined citizens hoping to celebrate the province’s Francophone culture, it’s now Western Canada’s largest winter festival, attracting more than 100,000 people each year. For 10 days in February, the stories of voyageurs (French Canadian fur traders) and Aboriginal people are brought to life alongside lively music, lifelike snow sculptures, and tasty French Canadian foods. Whether you can only visit for the weekend or are prepared to take in all of the festival’s events, it offers some of the most authentic Canadian experiences of the season.
What To Do
Lace up your snowshoes and journey across glistening fields of snow along the bank of the Red River. Photo by Dan Harper Photography, courtesy of Festival du Voyageur.
Located on the banks of the Red River, the historic Fort Gibraltar is a must-visit if you want to get a feel of what this celebration is all about. The reconstructed site, which was originally built in 1810 as a North West Company trading post, now offers interactive and educational tours about the fur trade era. Here, you can explore the culture of the Red River’s first inhabitants, as well as how these Aboriginal communities contributed to the success of voyageurs across the Northwest.
During the festival, the fort is also home to the Voyageur Apprenticeship Workshops, a popular set of classes that provide the rare opportunity to participate in demonstrations of traditional practices like canoe-paddle carving, tanning hides, and fishnet weaving.
If learning about the region’s earliest inhabitants has you craving a little outdoor adventure of your own, head to the tipi (or teepee). Inside you’ll be exposed to what life was like for Winnipeg’s Aboriginal people before embarking on a snowshoeing adventure along the Red River. The tour will expose you to the city’s beautiful snow-covered landscapes while transporting you back to the days of the fur trade. These tours are open to all ages, and families (or just kids at heart) are also invited to explore the festival’s giant playground, filled with slides and a maze built from snow.
What To See
Last year’s festival featured 140 musicians in concert at Voyageur Park. Photo by Dan Harper Photography, courtesy of Festival du Voyageur.
After soaking in some history and working up a sweat, unwind with a little live music hosted in Voyageur Park and nine other official festival sites. Outdoor concerts may seem more suited to summer, but huddling together and swaying to the beat of a song with a giant crowd of festival-goers is the perfect way to spend a crisp winter’s day. This year’s full lineup hasn’t been announced yet, but highlights from last year’s 140 artists include New Brunswick’s indie rock trio Les Hay Babies, Vancouver-based blues duo The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer, and Manitoba alt-rockers Attica Riots.
The festival also hosts an annual Beard Growing Contest that can’t be missed. Last year’s event featured 36 hairy contestants, competing in four different categories: the Festival Beard, the Voyageur Beard, the Novelty Beard, and an open category. When you’re done judging which man has the wildest, the wooliest, and even the fastest-growing facial hair, head to the International Symposium of Snow Sculptures, because it’s not winter festival without a collection of giant figures hand-carved from snow.
What To Eat
Be sure to partake in a traditional winter treat, maple syrup taffy made on top of fresh snow. Photo by Dan Harper Photography, courtesy of Festival du Voyageur.
When you’re running from the workshops in Fort Gibraltar, to the heated Portage Tent filled with artisans, to the concert stage in Voyageur Park, it’s easy to work up an appetite. Luckily, this festival is home to food vendors serving authentic French Canadian cuisine that won’t just fill you up, but will warm you up as well.
If you’re not exactly sure what French Canadian food entails, you’re in for a treat. Think hearty comfort foods and sugar-filled desserts. Don’t leave without trying some pea soup, poutine, tourtière, or sugar pie. And when the smell of maple syrup filling the air becomes too much to handle, head over to the Sugar Shack, pick up a popsicle stick, and roll it across some maple syrup–doused snow for a homemade (and quintessentially Canadian) toffee stick.