It's that time of year when thousands of Canadians are getting away to a warmer climate for their reading weeks and spring breaks. But instead of the beaches and palm trees I went a different route, I went to the 70th annual Northern Manitoba Trappers' Festival in The Pas, Manitoba.
The Trappers Festival is a unique experience that reminded me of when my parents used to take me to the Renaissance Fairs. The Festival provides a unique atmosphere in which anyone can experience a part of Canada's heritage -- a heritage that is becoming a part of much of Canada's past, except for in communities that keep it alive across the north.
Witnessing the events that are part of the Festival made me feel closer to my Canadian identity. There are festivals all over Canada -- Pride in Toronto, Canada Day in Ottawa, Just for Laughs in Montreal to name a few. Trappers Festival is rooted in First Nations territory and shaped by Metis tradition and by those that have settled over the years. It is a festival soaked in plaid, in the middle of winter, demonstrating just how rough and tumble Canadians still are.
Above it all, I could not get over how kind, courteous and welcoming everyone was. The only draw back was that it was too warm. Global warming pushed temperatures above zero, in the single digits, thus making much of the dog sled races an impossibility. As if it was within their control, everyone I talked to apologized for the weather and showed genuine remorse that my Trappers Festival would not include the famous dog races.
In a perfectly Canadian way, many were then optimistically glad "that at least the roads were clear so you got into town safely." The people of The Pas, Opaskwayak Cree Nation and the RM of Kelsey welcomed everyone to their region to celebrate this festival and just wanted the weekend to be perfect.
The people of these communities get involved each consecutive year, an ode to the last. Tradition is at stake and the people know that this festival is part of who they are and a reminder of where they came from. As history, has it, "Trager and Ben Dembinsky, convened the first modern-day Northern Manitoba Trapper's Festival in 1947, reasoning that Northern Manitobans needed an activity to brighten up the long, cold winters."
Since that time the competitions have expanded to include dog-mushing, ice fishing, snowshoe racing, rat skinning, and trap setting. Its iconic nature is evident in the recognition that is given to those who place first, the naming of a King and Queen trapper. The King Trapper must compete in 21 of 22 different events from axe throwing, to log throwing to the last event flour packing where "each contestant tries to carry a load of flour on his back for a set distance."
Talent and good cheer are everywhere. The craft show brings artists together from across the north who sell beaded jewelry, northern art, and fur trimmed winter clothing alongside wild mint tea, canned preservatives, and baked goods. At night there are dinners and socials where fiddle music can be enjoyed and whiskey, beer and Trappers' Tea are imbibed at a rapid rate.
From Lonesome Mary and Bill Bannock, the jolly mascots of the event, to the Fur Queen contestants, the Festival celebrates the heartiness, the courage and resilience of northern people. In such uncertain times this festival represents an opportunity to put the ugliness of the real world in the rear-view mirror. The festival is mainly void of commercialization and it is through that authenticity that you see something extraordinary.
An entire region coming together, indigenous, non-indigenous, young and old, working together to maintain age old traditions and building a bright future together. A truly Canadian experience that I am grateful to have been a part of first hand.
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