Are you a Voyageur?

by Doreen Pendgracs,

Ever wonder what life was like for the early French Canadian fur traders who settled along the Red River? A trip to Festival du Voyageur, held in the “French Quarter” of Winnipeg in February each year, will give you a great glimpse into just that.

What started back in 1970 by local entrepreneurs as a way to meet the needs of consumers looking to combat the winter blahs, Western Canada’s now-largest winter festival is very much alive with the sounds, sights, tastes and the “joie de vivre” of the early 19th century voyageurs, the pioneers of Western Canada.

We’re talking – and please picture this – men with long hair and beards, wearing animal skins and paddling wooden canoes – the original voyageurs coming to life all around you. Travel history enthusiasts are most likely to be found wearing red toques, multi-coloured sashes and brightly-coloured coats.

Many events happen simultaneously over the course of the 10-day festival, including “Voyageur Survivor, ” an opportunity to test your survival skills in true Voyageur fashion. This is a competition for the hardy, but not to fear. There are many spectator-friendly events to get you in the spirit of the voyageurs.

Most of the activities happen in and around Fort Gibraltar, a reconstruction of the original early 19th century wooden fort built by the North West Company. Costumed festival staff and volunteers joyfully role-play the different inhabitants you would have found living in and visiting the fort in the early 1800s.

A blacksmith will show you how his job was done at the time of the voyageurs. A hatter will show you how to tame a beaver pelt into one of those warm and wonderful beaver hats and tell you his version of the origin of the term “mad hatter, ” but you’ll have to attend the festival personally to hear it! You can see personal artifacts such as writing implements and the types of buttons worn on 19th century clothing.

You’ll learn how the voyageurs built their canoes – their most treasured companions. And you can meet costumed descendants of the original Métis, pet an extensive variety of fur pelts from inside the warmth of a teepee or eat freshly baked bannock over an open fire. Treat yourself to a variety of French Canadian foods including tortière, maple taffy and sugar pie, and “caribou, ” a fortified drink reminiscent of red wine mixed with vodka that was — and still is — popular among the francophones.

Festival du Voyageur gives you an opportunity to enjoy non-stop multi-cultural entertainment. One of the highlights is a host of fiddlers and folk dancing by La Rivière- Rouge Ensemble.

This year’s festival will take place February 17 – 26, 2012. Find out more about the various events taking place on the Festival du Voyageur site.

Feel like taking off with the voyageurs right now? Here’s a short 1964 film, courtesy of Canada’s National Film Board. Experience the journey right now!