Bundle up, Westman! It’s festival weekend … It doesn’t matter the weather, Westman residents do like to celebrate. And nothing strikes a chord like our popular Lieutenant Governor’s Winter Festival.
This year is the festival’s 10th anniversary. Anniversaries are special times, because they give us the chance to look back and to recall warm memories of the 30 same different countries and nationalities that have been represented over the past 10 years.
I remember the first year: visiting those seven inaugural pavilions, the 22 different ice sculptures around the city and getting back on a city bus for the first time since I had been a teenager.
Over the past 10 years, we have celebrated the culture of more than 30 different groups. Pavilions for Ukraine, Métis, First Nations and Irish peoples are recognized this year for participating every year for the past decade. Almost 400,000 individual pavilion visits and more than 4,000 volunteers make the Winter Fest an enduring and popular event.
But it’s not just about the math of tallying up venues, volunteers and visitors.
Anniversaries also give us a way to mark the passage of time. Ten years ago, we were a much smaller city; each year was pretty much like the last. Our growth from year to year had been very small, usually one to two per cent. Not surprisingly, the census reported our median age as getting progressively older from year to year. In short, there wasn’t a lot of change. My great-grandparents would definitely have recognized Brandon as the city they had lived in and raised their families in. Not much had changed.
Ten years ago, we were focused on an event to brighten a long cold winter, rather than the phenomenal multicultural celebration that the Winter Festival has become. Ten years ago, for the most part, our multicultural pavilions were a celebration of countries or cultures where our parents came from. That meant the opportunities for pavilions were a lot more limited than now. From that first group of pavilions, I can remember being enthralled by the exotic Belgium and Icelandic pavilions, and enjoying bannock for the first time.
Just how limited was our opportunity for pavilions 10 years ago? We had 60 Latinos living in Brandon, about 200 Chinese and no one from West Asia.
Well, what a difference 10 years makes. We are now one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada at more than 11 per cent. That makes change the new normal for our city. We are actually several years younger (by median age) than we were a decade ago, which puts a certain energy and bounce in our step.
Remember those 60 Spanish speakers 10 years ago? We now have more than 2,000 Spanish speakers, more than 1,200 Mandarin or Cantonese speakers, and newcomers from East and West Asia speaking a multitude of languages. There are just under 100 Brandonites speaking Gujarati; 135 speaking Korean, 180 speaking Tagalog and 150 speaking Amharic, to name a few. I had to go to Wikipedia to find out where Gujarati was spoken (besides in Brandon!).
There is no doubt about it — Brandon is a much more diversified, multicultural community than 10 years ago. And we have, for the most part, opened wide the arms of our city to embrace and welcome our newcomers. While we have inclusive multicultural laws in Canada, what I admire most about Brandon is that we go beyond what is expected, and we nurture and celebrate our many cultures.
As far as I know, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter has never been to Brandon, but he was certainly talking about our city when he said that we have become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams. Our city, our Brandon, is stronger, is richer for the many different and distinctive strands from which it is woven.
However, Winter Fest is not just a celebration of what makes us different. It is also a celebration of what unites us.
Beneath the armour of skin and bone and mind, we are amazingly the same. We all want a bright future for our children; we want to keep our parents safe. Our understanding of "home" is more than just a roof over our head. We can all complain about the cold to each other and boast about our survival and the height of the snowbanks to family who may live far away.
Anniversaries are also wonderful occasions to look into the future. What will Brandon be 10 years from now? What will our Winter Festival be 10 years from now? My grandmother used to say "the bones don’t lie" and the bones of our city — inclusiveness, adaptability, diversity — are good bones to build a future around. We are going to have a great future because I believe that we are meant to be here, in Brandon, together.
One of my favourite musicians, cellist Yo Yo Ma, recently quoted a Senegalese poet who said, "In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught. We must learn about other cultures in order to understand, in order to love, and in order to preserve our common world heritage."
However, that is a bit profound, and so in closing I’d also like to quote my wee neighbour down the street: "We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty, some are dull, some have weird names and all are different colours. But they all fit nicely into the same box."
» Shari Decter Hirst is Brandon’s mayor. Her column appears monthly