Winnipeg Manitoba – How My Affair with this Prairie City Began
My affair with Winnipeg Manitoba began innocently enough; I was an eleven year old boy with an overbite so pronounced I could have been a stand-in for Beaver Cleaver. At a time when orthodontics were unknown in northern Manitoba my parents deemed it necessary to have this situation corrected and how they found the name of Dr. Ben Cantor I have no idea. Accompanied by them I took the overnight train to Winnipeg (thus starting another love affair – this time with trains) and went to see Dr. Cantor at his office on Academy Road. I had my apprehensions which were confirmed the moment I walked into his office. The walls were lined with the most gruesome pictures I had ever seen and only on closer inspection did I realize that these were mouths – deformed mouths, infected mouths, gaping mouths that could have come straight from an Heironymous Bosch painting. There were also hundreds of plaster casts and not twenty seconds after sitting in the dentist’s chair I had a chunk of plaster shoved into me that was so big I thought I would choke to death .
Dr. Cantor was a small cheery fellow, but so was Dr. Mengele. Yes, he could fix me up and get my jaw aligned properly, but it would take two years and mucho dinero. I thought for sure that my parents would balk at this, but to my horror they agreed. I would return to Winnipeg Manitoba in a month to be fitted.
My father was running a busy mining consulting and exploration business and my mother by then had five kids to contend with so much to my delight it was determined that I would go back to Winnipeg Manitoba on my own. It would be an overnight on the train, a day at the dentists and then back by train. Judging my parents based on today’s standards this might have seemed like a rather dubious proposition, but Canada was a more innocent place in the early ’60s – the world of the Cleavers and Father Knows Best. The worst that could happen is that I might get lost and given my proficiency with maps, instilled by my father, that was deemed an acceptable risk. And if I did get lost I would just ask a stranger for directions. What would be wrong with that -perverts don’t hang around railway stations do they?
On the appointed day I was handed over to the conductor with instructions to not lose track of me – my first ever great solo adventure was about to begin and Winnipeg Manitoba was the destination. I don’t think I slept at all that night what with the combination of excitement at the journey and dread at the purpose. Stepping off the train in Union Station that morning was, for me, a transformative experience. I had never been in a building this big or grandiose. I had never been alone in a city. I had never been entrusted to take care of myself without any means of contacting my parents other than a pay phone. Was I scared or intimidated? Just the opposite – I loved the feeling of independence.
My instructions were clear – take the such and such bus to somewhere and transfer to another bus that would drop me almost at the orthodontist’s front door. I had been given enough money for two bus fares and could think of a lot better uses for it than handing it over to some bus driver; so I decided to walk. According to Google Maps the distance is about 5 kms. or 3 miles and should take an hour on foot. I have no recollection now of how I figured out how to get there then, but I did. I do remember being asked if I had any trouble with finding the right bus and lying “No, no problem at all”. That would become a standard response over the next few years.
The next few hours were agonizing to say the least as Dr. Cantor hummed away as he applied the braces using a tool he called ‘the woodpecker’ which was really just a miniature pile driver that he pulled and released and it drove the brace further onto the tooth. It was aptly named – after a few hours I felt like a giant woodpecker had been hammering at my skull. Pronouncing his work superb I was released into the custody of the city with three glorious hours before I needed to be back at the station. Simple math (the only kind I was any good at back then) told me I had two hours to explore Winnipeg Manitoba.
It was on this first trip that I discovered the wonder of the Hudson’s Bay Company store and probably it’s competitor Eaton’s.
It was beyond my comprehension that stores could possibly be this big. Approaching the entrance I saw that the way in was through a revolving door and my father’s admonition to avoid such doors at all costs came to mind. He had told me a story about a prospector from the Yukon who had struck it rich and came to the city to enjoy his wealth only to have both his legs broken when trying to enter a revolving door. Plucking up my courage I safely got through and was then bowled over by a following shopper who had not expected the small boy in front of him to stop and stare in amazement at the gigantic interior. I rode an escalator for the first time and after consulting the store map headed for the confectionery section on, I think the fifth floor. Emerging here I was the proverbial kid in a candy store – wonder of wonders, and I thought Doroshenko’s in The Pas had a good selection of four for one cent candies. This was like nothing I had ever seen or smelled for that matter. However, for some reason restraint overcame me and I decided to press on to the books sections. If I was blown away by the confectioneries, I was simply struck dumb at the sight of what seemed to me thousands of books aimed exactly at me. Instead of one or two Hardy Boys selections, this store had every single one! Nancy Drew as well. Something entirely new were the brightly covered Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter and Tarzan stories. I met Doc Savage for the first time, but it wasn’t just fiction. The Roger Tory Petersen guide books were a first for me as well the huge travel section. Fodor’s, Frommer’s and the Blue Guides all came into my ken on that one afternoon.
I knew I had to keep coming back here as often as I could and over the ensuing years I sort of accidentally kept having unexpected problems with my braces that necessitated other unescorted trips to Winnipeg Manitoba. I never failed to visit the Bay, especially after I discovered it also had great stamps for sale. Even though I couldn’t afford to buy them, nothing could stop me from asking to look at the stock books and feast my eyes on the prized Canadian and Commonwealth stamps that I so coveted.
I discovered other treasures like the Manitoba Legislature building which, externally and internally, I will put up against any provincial or state capitol in North America for architectural beauty.
The Fort Garry Hotel just down from Union Station was my first introduction to the grand Canadian railway hotels.
One trip I stumbled across the gate to Upper Fort Garry almost lost in the shadows of the hotel. I recognized it from a Canadian 10 cent stamp released in 1938 and part of my collection.
Over the three years I visited Dr. Cantor I fell heavily for Winnipeg Manitoba. Like a pubescent boy does for his young teacher, I couldn’t wait to learn the lessons she had to teach and could only fantasize over what might be. Alas, despite my best efforts to prolong matters my teeth eventually shifted into something approximating normality and Dr. Cantor took his ‘after’ cast and put it on display, adding me to his list of unqualified successes. This was somewhat of a miracle, as it turned out that Dr. Cantor was a quack who had never been formally trained in orthodontics. This came out years later and search as I may I cannot track the details down. No matter, he did a good job for me and I bear him no grudge, although maybe my parents should have been given a discount.
In my teens I was to return to Winnipeg on many occasions including as a participant on Reach for the Top for three straight years and as a curler in the Manitoba Schoolboy’s Bonspiel. The former was accompanied by a chaperon teacher, the latter was not – both added to my, by now firm belief, that Winnipeg Manitoba was the centre of the universe.
Later for reasons that are not relevant to this post I moved to Winnipeg to complete my Grade 12 at the excellent Gordon Bell High School where the quality of the teachers helped prepare me for the even higher quality professors at the University of Winnipeg. I have always loved learning, something instilled in me by my parents, particularly my father, and finding myself in an environment where there were lots of others keen to learn everything there was know about just about every subject one could name was like joining some great organization dedicated to the furtherance of knowledge for the good of each member and the group overall. I know that sounds like some kind of ethereal bull shit, but in The Pas there were so few of us that it was more like being in a secret society where having a brain was enough to get you challenged to a fight by the big dumbass who thought learning was for sissies (the word nerd wasn’t yet invented). Again I have Winnipeg to thank for its culture of realizing that education is the key to success.
During my four years in Winnipeg, first in River Heights, then almost downtown on Langside and finally in St. James I came know and appreciate a lot more things about Winnipeg including that great urban greenspace Assiniboine Park where I would wander and wonder for hours on end, sometimes caught up in teenage angst, at other times just enjoying the flowers. I spent way too much time and money at various Salisbury Houses, but I don’t regret it for a minute.
In the end though, I walked away from ‘Peg, abandoning her to return north to The Pas and start a career with the CNR – you see my love of trains which started with that first trip to Winnipeg, overcame my quest for knowledge. To ripoff Bob Dylan, ‘Peg had captured my heart, but not my soul.
I’ve returned to Winnipeg many times since and am doing so for my father’s 90th birthday this week. This post is a prequel.
While I’m here I will be revisiting parts of the city such as the Exchange District and making new acquaintances at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Please join me in continuing to appreciate this underrated city.