What It Was Like Growing Up in a City 'Colder Than Mars'
"I hate Winnipeg" might be the most famous lyric written about my home city, but I can't help but think how the godawful winters helped make us eccentric weirdos.
When a link to a documentary about Winnipeg being colder than Mars came up in my feed, I felt a pang of sympathy for my former self, struggling year after year in the city of my birth. It was December 31, 2013 when reports flooded social media that it was -20.2 F on Mars, while in Winnipeg it was hella colder than that, with temperatures before the windchill dropping to -36.4 F.
While that particular day made headlines, Manitoba temperatures are rather prone to dropping below those of Mars. As a kid, I understood that from Christmas through Easter, -4 F was a tolerable day, 14 F was awesome, and -22 F or lower meant rough times. In Toronto, I get to add at least ten degrees onto each figure.
Looking back, this part of my childhood seems like a past triumph born of desperation: You're not totally sure how you got through it, or if you could do it again. (Quick shout out to all my pals chilling in the 'peg to this day.)
When I was a kid, Mars was never something we compared Winnipeg's frozen winters to. I never even thought of Mars as having a cold atmosphere: In photographs, the red planet looked pretty balmy compared to the white glare threatening to blind us all on so many crushing mornings when we awoke to newly crested snowdrifts.
Pre-internet, when it was more difficult to compare climate stats, we kids were told our city was "colder than cities in Russia, but not some Russian towns," an odd distinction (plus pretty much untrue), but we longed to be the best, the most, the superlative at something, anything, clinging even to the dubious title of Murder Capital.
We knew it was colder up north (including the mysterious territories where "almost no one lived,"—thanks, Canada's education curriculum), but of the cities getting coverage on national news, it was easy to be confident that we had it the worst, and one of my aunts used to confirm this, on days when the windchill pushed below -40 F or a blizzard dropped 30 centimeters of snow, by calling from Vancouver to gloat. I grew up with the understanding that for half the year, my city and I were the planet's underdogs.
And maybe we needed that to pull through each winter. My great and great-great grandparents were likely less hostile colonial settlers and more refugees taken for fools when they immigrated to Canada and arrived at the point where the Red and Assiniboine rivers conjoin. It's understandable that they perhaps began to hold the Red River Valley's harsh conditions as proof of their strength and an excuse for their failures.
It's easier to be lenient of everything from mediocrity to intense eccentricity in a city where you and all your neighbors are held captive by a cruel deep freeze for half of each year.
There's a renown tolerance for weirdness (or, at least, white weirdness) in Winnipeg that's best exemplified by the strange art of Guy Maddin and the Royal Art Lodge, or all the musicians who've holed up over the winters making albums. But it also spills over into a stoic acceptance of and openness to humanity's shadowy sides, from substance abuse to mental health issues. Looking back on frank discussions about various family members or downtown maladies, I realize it was Winnipeg attitudes that taught me to look at seemingly perfect families and institutions with suspicion or even pity, wondering what awful secrets might defrost in their yards in the springtime.
Better to wear discontent on the outside, I learned, like the Red River Valley trees, which, frozen for nearly half the year, are forced to stop growing for so long that I imagine they begin again in spring with no recollection of where they left off, rushing to make up lost time through hot, dry Winnipeg summers, twisting their bodies over the years into strange, mangled monstrosities I've never seen the likes of anywhere else.
When describing life in Winnipeg now, I find the warped trees along the riverbank are my easiest metaphor, unless my conversation buddy has seen Guy Maddin's myth-building avant-garde homage My Winnipeg, a film which had my mom lol-ing in the theater and has served as an icebreaker with random movie lovers from around the world, who tend to then be super impressed that I'm a flesh and blood representative of the place.
"Are you really allowed to keep your old keys and enter all your old apartments?" one Australian asked me, in reference to one of the silly legends Maddin made up for the movie.
And it might have more to do with Winnipeg's small-town vibe (and our murder-capital eschewing "Friendly Manitoba" license plates), but I can't imagine any new tenant of my old Winnipeg addresses turning me down if I tried. I imagine, more likely, that they'd stand awkwardly in the doorway, smiling politely, and letting me mentally replace their furniture with the pre-IKEA ghosts of my past, all the while dreading the moment when my gang of robber pals run in to ransack the place. The tightrope walk of Winnipeg's high tolerance/high crime anxiety-state tracing lines of conflict over a guarded face.
The first time someone pointed out Manitoba-face to me, I was 17. A prodigal son on a brief respite back to Winnipeg after a decade of travel pointed at people on the 60 bus, saying he'd never seen faces like these anywhere else on the continent. I understood this more in the years to follow, when I'd become a stunned visitor myself, experiencing culture shock when confronted with symbols of my heritage.
I think it's true that over the years, the human faces in the land that's colder than Mars accrue the same staggered aging effects as the trees: a weathered, frozen countenances that haven't quite taken on the consistency of elm bark but have been marked by patterns of weather more harsh and vigorous than elsewhere. In moments of vanity, I'll wonder if my childhood winters sealed the fate of my features.
Born in February, a.k.a. the month when all my friends in Toronto decide to stop going out until it's leather jacket weather again, I remember my cliff-jumping birthday parties clearly, which is surprising giving what a cliff-jumping party was. I don't know where my parents got the idea (I assume their lack of budget made them resourceful), but on February weekends, a gaggle of children—mostly girls—would pile into my dad's truck, and we'd squish together in our puffy snowsuits all the way to the Red River, about a ten minute drive from my house.
There, we'd dive from the riverbanks into the deep (sometimes several-little-girls-high) snow drifts below, again and again, running and throwing ourselves from the cliff edges until someone landed too rough or couldn't take it anymore and started crying. Then we'd pull ourselves miserably back to my house and struggle out of our clothing, rings of burning-cold snow lining our wrists, ankles, throats, and waists, and prepare ourselves to pound back hot chocolate.
I mentioned these parties to a co-worker of mine in Toronto, and he remarked that my parents were lucky they never got sued, which stands, hilariously, in my memory as one of those moments when someone really can never get where you come from.
CanCon stereotypes are funny, but in Winnipeg, I did get pulled around behind a German Shepard in a wooden sleigh, and my friends and I had igloos or quinzees (basically a hollowed out snow pile) in our yards every winter until we got to lazy, or too cool, to bother building them anymore.
More than any other, though, this now legendary phenomena of Winnipeg being colder than Mars mostly conjures one specific memory for me.
I was 12 or 13, past snow fort age but not past the age where I might have half enthusiastically helped my little brother dig one out over a weekend. I was walking to school in a blizzard in some of the harshest weather I can remember. Picture a journey-to-the-South-Pole type movie of the week, except instead of your protagonists fighting nature for some noble goal, I was going to my junior high school social studies class. I remember thinking a thought not unfamiliar to Winnipeggers: Maybe I should just lay down in the snow and give up.
A city bus stopped beside me, which was odd since I was walking on a side street. The door opened, and the driver asked me if I was going to school. When the driver said she was going to give me a lift, I could have cried. I rode the empty miracle bus the few remaining blocks to school as the ice melted off my eyelashes.
In the brick building where life was generally a monotonous nightmare for us all, it turned out while a bunch of kids had stayed home, some had shown up. No one was impressed that I'd dragged my tiny body through such extreme weather, and the heroic rescue faded from my mind for years.
In looking for photos for this essay, I realized I have almost none. We don't take photos when it's 20 or 40 degrees below freezing. We pull our sleeves over our mittens, and we keep an eye peeled, hoping some kind bus driver, or passing space ship, will offer a ride.
A small section of Mars is now named after Winnipeg, but the hype has been contested—one Winnipeg Free Press article points out, in typical Winnipeg-hating-on-Winnipeg fashion, that one stat comparison shows Vancouver could be described as colder than Mars.
While I have yet to see Colder Than Mars, the documentary that's attempting to capitalize on 2013's viral Winnipeg vs. Mars sensationalism, it's telling that the trailer starts with one of the two Simpsons quotes that reference the city: "We were born here, what's your excuse."
Winnipeggers, feeling constantly under-appreciated for our abilities to slog through the horror of -58 F with the windchill—and don't you dare say the windchill doesn't count—are just as identity obsessed as everyone else, only we want to compete for worst-place, seeking shout outs like the thirstiest of fanboys.
Yet it's the doc's quick frame of some party girls outside of country bar Whiskey Dix or wherever that makes me a little homesick. For the privileged majority, basic survival through a Winnipeg winter isn't that difficult, but for the city's entire population, it's actually living through one—going dancing, turning snowdrifts into amusement parks, not stopping to nap in a snowbank forever—that requires incredible emotional stamina.
As a white girl from Fort Garry who still mumbles, "fuck, a booter," when the ground gives and I feel my shoe fill with snow, Winnipeg shaped me in many ways—I won't leave anything of mine in a car without hiding it, which people in Toronto seem to find bizarre—but I'm grateful to its harsh winters for showing me that isolation and intense circumstances can breed not only weirdness but defiance and brilliance, whatever it is: a film like Maddin's Saddest Music in the World, artist Kelly Ruth's noise instrument, or Venetian Snares's fuck-you take on electronic music.
Winnipeg taught me that if we ever beam people up to the Red planet, there won't just be existence on Mars. There will be life.
Follow Kristel Jax on Twitter.