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Learning to Celebrate Winter With the Winter Cities – Shake Up

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Winter can be a challenging time. It is difficult for individuals and can also add many complications when running a municipality or a city. Winter is a significant Canadian experience, so how can we improve it?

In January 2015, Edmonton hosted a unique international Winter Cities Conference inviting people of all disciplines to discuss what makes a thriving winter city. This year, Winnipeg hosted the 2023 Winter Cities – Shake Up. The three-day event held at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg’s downtown featured keynote speakers, workshops, and discussions covering a wide array of winter topics, including winter tourism, electric vehicles, outdoor events and festivals, cold climate design and construction, and environmentalism. It was also an opportunity for those from outside the city and those who live here to participate in numerous activities and visit some of the beautiful locations in the “Winterpeg.”

But why is there so much desire to promote winter in Canadian communities? 

Travel Manitoba’s President Colin Ferguson says winter is untapped tourism potential. Learning the best practices of winter tourism from events such as the Winter Cities Conference can help give Manitoba an edge in achieving lofty tourism goals. 

“With growth comes economic prosperity, and winter can be a big part. Our plan is to get back to pre-pandemic levels. 2019 was the best year we ever had, with $1.6 billion in visitor spending in the province of Manitoba. We are virtually back to that now, and we are anticipating by the end of 2023, we will be back at that number.”

According to Ferguson, Manitoba is leading the country and likely the first province to get back to pre-pandemic levels. Looking ahead, Manitoba’s long-term goals see tourism in Manitoba at $2.5 billion by 2030—a 50 per cent increase from where the province is currently. 

“We believe we can get there,” says Ferguson, “And winter will be a key contributor in us seeing that.”

Ferguson notes hosting the Winter Cities – Shake Up is huge for Manitoba, “A great opportunity.” Having attended a number of these events in the past, Ferguson has seen the possibility of what can be accomplished from winter communities collaborating and sharing best practices. Travel and Manitoba and Travel Manitoba can be a catalyst for the province – disseminating information from events like this and encouraging cooperation and collaboration for Manitoban communities, opening more doors for the growing tourism industry. 

“I have said on many occasions nobody does winter better than the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba. We have a consistent winter product, and it provides us with ample opportunity to do things that other communities can’t.”

The Nestaweya skate trail, over 13,000 kilometres of scenic snowmobile trails, and the programming and services available at the Forks are just a few examples of this opportunity. 

President and CEO Sara Stasiuk kicked off the conference as the first keynote speaker. Achieving the ambitious goal of reaching $2.5 billion in tourism areas such as the Forks will be critical. The Forks has been a gathering place for thousands of years by Indigenous communities and continues to be an important area today with over 4 million visitors a year and contributes over $126 million to the local economy. 

The Forks functions under a stewardship model, with board member representatives appointed by the civic, provincial and municipal governments. This model, with interest and government powers, maintains a private entity’s flexibility and agility. Stasiuk says as stewards for the area, and as they plan for further development, the organization maintains a focus on environmental protections that includes continued relationships with Winnipeg’s Indigenous community. 

“Relationships with Indigenous peoples have always been a core of the development of the Forks since the very beginning. We’ve been working very closely with Elders and leaders in our community to ensure there was honest feedback and honest direction coming before moves were made. Consultation is ongoing and regular in our decision-making process.”

When building and designing, the Forks follows the seven generations model, looking at the environmental impact on the land not to disturb the stories of the past and ensuring riverbanks are preserved. 

When the land ownership was transferred to the Forks in the late 80s early 90s, it was mostly just a surface parking lot. Slowly the area has developed, becoming the destination it is today. This slow development has allowed for responsiveness to the community’s needs, says Stasiuk, and as Winnipeg grows, there will be more need for housing. One of the next steps for the Forks will be an integration of residential on-site. 

“Later this year, we’re hoping to be in the ground with ten residential buildings. This will change the dynamic, and I think it will help change the dynamic of Winnipeg as a downtown destination not just for work and play but also for living. We already have tens of thousands of residents living downtown, and I truly think residential downtown will be our future.” 

To enjoy the refreshing winter air of Winnipeg, conference delegates were invited to the Nestaweya skate trail to take part in a Snöfest Jamboree hosted by the Scandinavian Cultural Centre to celebrate the cold and enjoy good company while skiing, skating, kick sleigh, dancing and singing. The group also unveiled a snow sculpture outside the Winnipeg Trail’s ski shack, a “Viking Biking.”

Helle Wilson is the President of the Danish Canadian Club, and Sonja Lundstrom is the President of the Swedish Cultural Association of Manitoba, two of five clubs which comprise the Scandinavian Cultural Centre. The two women and many other club members shared a love for nature, especially in the cold of winter, and wanted to share that enthusiasm with the delegates. 

“Snöfest is a celebration of winter,” says Lundstrom, “and is such a part of our Scandinavian culture. We’re so excited to live in this great Winnipeg city where we can celebrate our culture with all the great gifts of nature.”

Wilson adds the conference is such an excellent opportunity for Winnipeg to learn from each other and continue to build a love for the country regardless of the season. 

“We have a Danish speaker who is a part of the conference, and he talks about happiness. What makes people happy in Winnipeg? Well, you embrace the cold. It’s winter, and we’re so happy to be out here.”

Enthusiasm for the snow has seen an ebb and flow over the years, and perception of the winter has improved as of late. According to Anders Swanson, Executive Director of the Winnipeg Trails Association, there’s a lot we can learn from Winnipeg’s newcomers. Swanson experienced 600-700 newcomers skiing on one day at the University of Manitoba this winter and learned a lot from listening to them. Not all come from a hot tropical country. Some come from places just as cold as Canada. Regardless of where they come from, many newcomers have a different perspective on being a part of the outdoors.

“Many newcomers come from a place with a more advanced social network or social fabric because people know how to be outside. They know how to market, and they know how to have quiet people-friendly streets. People know how to have patios; people know how to live outdoors, whether it’s in Senegal, Bangladesh, or Ukraine. There’s a lot we can learn from newcomers; they’re coming out because they want to see other people. It can be a little lonely when you move to a place like Winnipeg because we’ve shunned the outdoor world a little bit and turned inward.” 

Swanson believes it’s about seeing other people and building community and friendships while appreciating the world around us and having fun in the snow. 

The 2023 Winter Cities – Shake Up wrapped up this Friday, ending with a Festival du Voyageur send-off.

– Ryan Funk, U Multicultural

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