Bronze sculptor Wayne Stranger usually shapes molten metal in the sweltering heat of the forge. But at Festival du Voyageur on Saturday morning, he was busy shaping a chillier medium into an enormous mother buffalo and her calves.
“I’m enjoying myself,” said Stranger, a member of Peguis First Nation who’s the first-ever First Nations snow sculptor to try his hand at Festival du Voyageur’s famous snow sculpting symposium.
“I’m really enjoying the hospitality, these people have been amazing, lots of help everywhere. I’d like to come back, that’s for sure.”
Stranger is part of Festival du Voyageur’s push to include Indigenous people and Indigenous cultures. Nic Audette, the festival’s director of marketing and communications, said the move was an attempt to take part in reconciliation.
“We’re really working to forge partnerships with Indigenous people and Indigenous organizations, and open the doors,” said Audette.
“Because for us the fur trade is not just about the fur trading companies, it’s not just about the voyageurs. We’re here to celebrate the deep kinship between the voyageurs and the First Nations communities, because there wouldn’t have been a fur trade without them.”
Festival security is working alongside Winnipeg’s Bear Clan Patrol this year, and festival programming features plenty of daily Indigenous content, including educational events like Pow Wow 101.
Robyn Adams, Festival du Voyageur’s new Indigenous initiatives co-ordinator, said she aimed to include representation from Métis, First Nations and Inuit communities.
“I think it’s incredibly important, and I feel so honoured and thankful,” said Adams, who is Métis.
“The whole team’s been awesome, too, and everyone’s very open to everything I’ve been programming. Personally, I think Métis people — because we have a history of both the settler and the colonized — we have this amazing position to create a platform for other Indigenous voices as well.”
Métis artist Jaime Black, known for her REDress Project art installation representing missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, said it was high time for Festival du Voyageur to prioritize Indigenous inclusion.
“I think that there’s a whole narrative of the Indigenous-settler relations, just more broadly here in Winnipeg, that people are not really aware of — but also at the festival as well — that really needs to be woven into how we do things here,” she said.
Black’s snow-and-ice sculpture, We Stand Together, comprises four snowy monoliths placed in the four cardinal directions, with the core of each block dug out to reveal a transparent icy interior with a length of colourful fabric frozen inside, representing the four colours of the Medicine Wheel.
“I kind of see it as almost like an excavation of history here on this land, and so these blocks of snow started representing the strata of the land as we dig into it, and that’s what it really felt like as we were digging into it,” Black said.
This year’s Festival du Voyageur still features the usual Franco-Manitoban trappings such as axe throwing, wood carving, historical interpretation and horse-drawn sleigh rides. Communications director Nic Audette said the festival has also taken steps to alleviate long lines outside of heated tents by eliminating one tent, making others slightly larger, and installing the extra-large Bell MTS Rivière-Rouge Tent with a capacity of more than 1,000 people. Last year’s festival drew more than 95,000 people, he said.
“And we’re thinking with our new park capacity that we can increase that just a little bit.”
Festival attendee Darryle Clott came to Winnipeg from La Crosse, Wis., as part of a group of ambassadors from that town’s annual Oktoberfest.
“I’ll tell you, all of the former (Oktoberfest) people that have been here, this is their favourite festival,” said Clott.
Clott said she loves learning about how the voyageurs lived, but she considers Manitobans to be the festival’s biggest attraction.
“Every single person that we’ve met that’s from this area, and from this fest — they are welcoming, and so friendly, and so kind and caring, I can see why people love coming to this festival. Plus there are a lot of fun events too, but it’s the people, very definitely.”
For Clott, the only disappointing aspect of Festival du Voyageur was her first taste of the festival’s signature libation, Caribou.
“I was looking forward to trying it, but I’ve gotta tell you, it’s not my cup of tea.”
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.