Bonjour. Comment ça va?
Très bien, Merci!
Looking for joie de vivre? Well, mon ami, you’ve come to the right place because this belle neighbourhood is St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s historic French quarter, where l’automne et l’hiver (that’s fall and winter) are magnifique.
To start off, let’s do as the locals do and take to the leaf or snow-laden streets to get you a café and a pastry shall we? For the café, let’s do Café Postal, where the knowledgeable baristas will tell you a thing or two about their teas and beans, along with the locals who have made this little shop part of their morning routine. From there, it’s on to Le Croissant, whose owners from the Alsace region of France make the sort of flakey-come-melt-in-your-mouth croissant that will bring your taste buds to the foot of the Alps. (Word from the wise, get there before noon to make sure they still have a nice selection).
Then, make your way through these historical streets. St. Boniface is a culturally rich hood, featuring the superb architecture of Étienne Gaboury – one of Winnipeg’s, and indeed Canada’s most celebrated figures when it comes to design – and numerous attractions that are all within short walks of one another.
For starters, it would be impossible to ignore the pull of the towering and impressive Cathédrale de Saint-Boniface, whose stone façade looks west toward downtown Winnipeg and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Year-round it is open for exploration (or prayer) and is a most intriguing building with its impressive original masonry now being attached to a lovely restored cathedral by Gaboury (most of the original structure perished in a fire in 1968). The interior of the cathedral is simply stunning with its vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows and Métis-inspired depiction of Jesus and Mary.
The Cathedral’s cemetery is also worth exploring, it contains the grave of Louis Riel, “The Father of Manitoba” whose rebellion against the Canadian government (which led to him being hung in 1885) has made him a modern day folk hero.
You can learn all about him next door to the Cathedral at Le Musée de St. Boniface, the former home of the Grey Nuns who arrived at this Red River Colony in 1844. This three-storey white board building is a treasure trove loaded with artifacts recalling the history of Francophones and Métis in Manitoba. As well, just around the corner from Le Musée is an abstract statue of Riel that stands beside the handsome L’Université de Saint-Boniface. The statue is encased in a wall that was also designed by Gaboury, whose other St. Boniface works includ the Esplanade Riel – that stylish walking bridge which connects St. Boniface to The Forks, along with Precious Blood Church – whose spiralling, tipi-inspired design makes for one of the most intriguing houses of worship you will find anywhere. (A third iconic piece from Gaboury in Winnipeg is the Royal Canadian Mint, which is located at the city’s east entrance right on the Trans Canada Highway).
Another landmark of note in St. Boniface is Maison Gabrielle-Roy and its ‘Au bonheur d’occasion Gift Shop. This two-and-a-half story house was the family home of world-renowned Franco-Manitoban author Gabrielle Roy, who is considered to be one of Canada’s most greatest novelists, having been an international best-seller and three-time Governor General’s Award winner. The house – which is now a museum, served as the setting of several of her works. It was built in 1905 and Gabrielle-Roy’s home from the time of her birth in 1909 until she moved to Europe in 1937.
Back on Provencher Boulevard, which is St. B’s main drag, be sure to stop into Chocolatier Constance Popp, where you can warm up with some spicy Mexican hot chocolate and shop for handmade, ethically sourced sweets.
Almost directly across the street you’ll find situated, within the town’s old city hall, La Maison des artistes visuels francophones, a gallery and cultural hub that frequently showcases contemporary art on its walls (along with hosting some pretty darn good parties). The gallery is located right in Tourisme Riel’s office – who are the people to talk to when it comes to St. Boniface. While most of their guided walking tours wrap up by Labour Day, they can provide you with all the info you’ll need for a self-guided tour of this splendid area.
Tourism Riel also organizes the local branch of Culture Days (Culture fête), which takes place from Sept 25-27. During Culture Days free hands-on activities will have the public engaging with local artists in a variety of mediums including dance workshops, theatrical performances and all manner of artistic endeavours.
Most of these take place at the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain (CCFM), which is only a couple doors down from old city hall. Every Tuesday night Winnipeg’s finest jazz players come to the CCFM for Mardis Jazz, while the building houses a Stella’s restaurant along with numerous groups that contribute to the neighbourhood’s artistic vitality including: 100 Nons, Éditions du blé, Envol 91, Chorale des Intrépides, Alliance chorale du Manitoba, Conseil jeunesse provincial, Amicale de la francophonie multiculturel du Manitoba, Societé Historique de Saint-Boniface, Freeze Frame and Cercle Molière. Cercle Molière is one of Winnipeg’s oldest cultural institutions. They have been putting on French-language theatre since 1925, which also makes it Canada’s oldest continuously running theatre company. Their new 125-seat multipurpose theatre (it just opened in 2010) is an absolute peach to take in a performance at. Their season runs from October through to April, and they have English subtitles available for every performance.
Of course, the biggest thing in winter in St. Boniface – indeed in Winnipeg and we dare argue central Canada – is Festival du Voyageur, one of the world’s best winter parties. This year Festival du Voyageur runs from Feb 12-22 and features more events, parties, live music and outdoor activities than one can fathom.
Held in the historic Fort Gibraltar, just a short jaunt from the main drag, Festival du Voyageur features costumed interpreters throughout the fort’s fur-trading huts who bring you back to the 19th century with their tales of working for The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. The whole fort is surrounded by giant snow sculptures carved from international artists, while nightly and daily concerts held in giant tents feature rock, roots, folk, hip-hop, and dance acts, along with DJs and acclaimed headlining acts.
Of course, this being a festival celebrating French culture, there is also incredibly indulgent food – from smoked turkey legs, to poutine, to beavertails – while beer gardens and caribou served in glasses made of ice are there to wash it all down. There is also a giant toboggan run for the whole family to enjoy; snowshoeing and teepees where guided tours will give you the voyageur experience; and everybody’s favourite, maple taffy on a stick.
There is no end to great dining in St. Boniface including Chaise Café, which offers in-house made everything – including excellent pizzas and great prix fixe deals – in a very inviting setting (a converted house); Dwarf No Cachette, a ridiculously cute and whimsical Japanese restaurant which immerses you in Tokyo kwaii (their servers often dress like maids while their okonomiyaki and ramen rock); Le Garage Café, where everyone from college kids to retired people go to see live shows and devour poutine; and Promenade Café and Wine, whose excellent prairie-inspired comfort food is complemented by outstanding views of The Forks from across the Red River.