Winnipeg finally embracing ‘winter city’ tag

WINTER has always defined Winnipeg. Mountains of snow, icy roads, biting windchill and temperatures that plunge to dangerous lows. It’s a season that prompts residents to question their life choices and causes whole flocks of people to opt out entirely and head south for warmer climes.

In recent years, however, Winnipeg has started to define winter in new terms.

This year, the city has seen an unprecedented number of events encouraging citizens to get outside and embrace the cold. It’s a positive trend with promising and wide-ranging societal implications.

While there have always been pockets of people who look forward to winter for its seasonal activities — skiing, skating, tobogganing, snowmobiling, ice fishing — for many, the months between November and April were to be endured, not enjoyed. Attitudes seem to be shifting among the general population.

The Forks can take some of the credit. The organization has offered winter programming for decades, but receiving a Guinness World Record designation for longest naturally frozen skating trail in 2008 sparked a newfound sense of seasonal pride.

Today the Nestaweya River Trail attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every winter. The free and accessible skating, walking and skiing paths are used for pleasure and as active transportation routes. The temporary landmark has become a site for world-class dining and creative public art installations.

Festival du Voyageur is another trailblazer. Since 1970, the francophone arts and culture festival has been offering Winnipeggers a reason to celebrate the season with snow sculptures, maple syrup taffy and music. This year’s event, which is currently underway, boasts new programming and more than 200 artists.

Yet nothing has impacted attitudes more than the COVID-19 pandemic. With indoor spaces posing serious health risks, the population was forced to venture outside. Socializing en plein air became the norm year-round and ushered in a new era of cold-weather community-building.

Residents in Wolseley banded together to create a community park on the Assiniboine River, ice rinks and snow castles cropped up in yards across the city and the municipal government promised better winter maintenance of pedestrian and cycling pathways.

This year, even as public health orders have lifted, the urge to enjoy winter remains.

An expanded licensing program has allowed restaurants and bars to keep their patios open year-round, if they so desire. Business improvement zones in Osborne Village and Downtown have hosted ice-sculpting competitions, public art showcases, outdoor concerts and frosty beer-athalons. The Manitoba Marathon saw hundreds of people take part in its inaugural Hot Chocolate Hustle on one of the coldest weekends of the year thus far. A Maze in Corn has added a fine-dining snow restaurant to its roster of winter activities.

All these innovations are proof that if you build it — especially out of snow — they will come.

Last week, Winnipeg played host to the Winter Cities Shake-up Conference, a gathering of experts designed to highlight how northern cities can make the most of winter and tap into economic opportunities through urban design, public policy and novel experiences — something local businesses and individuals are already capitalizing on.

Edmonton has a dedicated strategy to make winter more enjoyable for residents through better snow management, city-wide outdoor events and accessible recreation. The City of Winnipeg would do well to pursue a similar vision to make this place livable and vibrant year-round.

Winnipeg will always be a winter city. The way residents and officials approach this polarizing season could make that a selling point, rather than a disadvantage.