Festival du Voyageur: Not just a celebration for Saint-Boniface

Today marks the kick-off of Saint-Boniface's 43rd Festival du Voyageur, the largest winter carnival in Western Canada and Winnipeg's premier winter celebration embracing Manitoba's Métis and French-Canadian heritage.

When you get to such a size and age, you're not just a hometown attraction for Winnipeg and area any longer, which is why every February - much like the Winnipeg Folk Festival in July - plenty of Thompsonites are making the trek south to Voyageur Park between now and Feb. 26 when the festival wraps up. The winter festival had revenues of about $2.408 million last year.

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In 2010, Festival du Voyageur Inc. received $438,174 from Industry Canada's two-year Marquee Tourism Events Program (MTEP), which was part of the Conservative government's Economic Action Plan unveiled in the 2009 federal budget to provide stimulus as a result of the 2008 worldwide financial crisis. The festival also received MTEP funding in 2009.

The Marquee Tourism Events Program was established to provide targeted, time-limited support to assist existing marquee tourism events to enhance their offering and deliver world-class programs and experiences. Marquee events were defined as an annually recurring world-class event that is well established and has a long-standing tradition of programing and management excellence. A marquee tourism event generates significant levels of tourism and aims to attract a significant amount of international media attention to Canada as a tourism destination.

The historical roots of Festival du Voyageur date back to 1967 and Canada's centennial year and a small a group of Saint-Boniface entrepreneurs. Initially they promoted their idea under the banner of the Chamber of Commerce of Saint-Boniface and approached the city to obtain financial support. The financial support first offered wasn't sufficient for such an ambitious three-day project as proposed. So in 1968, the same group came back with their idea and the support and participation of 18 city organizations.

Le Festival du Voyageur Inc. was incorporated as a non-profit organization on Dec. 18, 1969. The City of Saint-Boniface, shortly before it amalgamated with Winnipeg in 1971, guaranteed its full support and in 1970, as part of Manitoba's own provincial centenary celebrations, the inaugural Festival du Voyageur was held. Saint-Boniface was incorporated in 1880, became a town in 1883, and a city in 1908. The community grew around Basilique-Cathedrale de Saint-Boniface, where Métis heroes Louis Riel and Ambroise-Dydime Lépine are buried.

Festival du Voyageur started out as a three-day event held in Winnipeg's French Quarter. It has over more than four decades evolved into a 10-day provincewide celebration, which last year attracted more than 97,000 visitors, including 12,089 schoolchildren for its educational program, to a reconstructed Fort Gibraltar, originally a North West Company trading post in the early 19th century, just across the river from the Forks in Whittier Park.

While organizers like to dub it the "world's largest kitchen party," a claim that might well be contested by their Acadian cousins in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and Cajuns in Louisiana, there's no argument that Festival du Voyageur well celebrates the joie de vivre of the fur traders, who established the Red River Colony and the ever-growing French-Canadian community in Western Canada.

Festival highlights include the international snow sculpture contest that invites artists locally and from around the world to create over 20 large sculptures. Not surprisingly, there is plenty of jigging and fiddling going on among more than 300 musical performances, while contestants in the 10-week beard growing contest, a charity fundraiser for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba, have been growing their facial hair in the three categories of "festival beard" (clean shaven), "voyageur beard" (wild and woolly) and the "novelty" category (groomed beard and/or moustache) since Dec. 15 registration at the Garage Café on Boulevard Provencher.

There is also a "media" category "exclusively for media personalities," added by organizers to bring greater visibly in the local media. Winners will be selected Feb. 24. The $35 registration fee is waived if the contestant has raised more than $100 in pledges. The contest had more than 50 participants and raised more than $5,000 last year.

Visitors can warm up in large tents where the menu includes pea soup, tourtiÈre, and maple syrup poured on snow to become taffy. At night, adults listen to rocking Francophone bands or enjoy "caribou" fortified wine in ice glasses inside the snow bar. Acadian artists George Belliveau and Joseph Edgar, who have performed at Moncton's Francofête, and previously at Festival du Voyageur with their previous bands Bois-Joli and Zéro Degré Celsius, will be making their first appearances here this year as solo artists.

Franco-manitoban marijosée, who won the Festival du Voyageur Prize at the Découvertes manitobaines en chanson event, and Isabeau et les chercheurs d'or, a country band from Québec, are also performing. Isabeau et les chercheurs d'or will also be performing as part of The Great West Life School Program.

The festival had 1,151 volunteers last year that donated 14,393 hours of work, according to Festival du Voyageur's annual report for 2010-11. According to an economic impact assessment by Economic Development Winnipeg Inc., released last June 29, Festival du Voyageur generated total initial expenditures of $5.4 million in operating and visitor spending. According to the assessment, these expenditures generated an estimated $12.9 million in total Gross Economic Activity (direct, indirect and induced) and also net economic impacts of $6.7 million on GDP in Manitoba.

The 2011 survey found that 32 per cent of visitors were on their first visit to Festival du Voyageur and 87 per cent of them said they are likely or very likely to return this year As well, 96 per cent of festival goers said they were satisfied or very satisfied with their experience at the 2011 festival.

© Copyright Thompson Citizen

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