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Friday, August 25, 2000

Day 18: Winnipeg
Prairie city looks to the future
despite problems from the past

Where the Prairies hit a single mountain of glass and steel, where rural highways empty into Portage Avenue, there are two Winnipegs rubbing side by side, pushing the city forward while also holding it back.

On one side, the Prairie capital that has long been a centre of diversity, a confluence of Métis and Ukrainian, Scottish and Jewish, is again being transformed by immigration, by Filipinos, Somalis and Tamils. The new Canadians who have settled in Winnipeg over the past 20 years have brought vibrancy to a city fighting decline, kept its population younger, and helped diversify an economy that some fear is stuck in another century.

This face of Winnipeg is no more visible than at the rejuvenated Forks, a complex of old terminal buildings that has been transformed as a national historical site, with a shopping, eating and performance centre and children's museum. This week, a busking stand at the Forks featured an Ecuadorian guitar band watched by scores of people eating jerk chicken salad, chickpea curry and Ukrainean borscht.

Outside the renovated complex, on pathways and canoe docks that run along the banks of the muddy Assiniboine and Red Rivers, Punjabi and Guinean families wandered in the glorious sun of Prairie summer, as home in Winnipeg as they would be in much larger Montreal or Toronto.

On the monochrome Prairies, the mix of so many non-European cultures stands out as boldly as Winnipeg's skyline. But only a few blocks away, the other Winnipeg struggles on. Near Portage and Main, the very centre of a region and an era, decrepit buildings remain boarded up, their windows long broken. Outside, crowds of Indian men remain idle, most of them drunk in the early afternoon, wandering from one parkette to another, or back to hostels and the detox centre under the eye of community police on foot.

Natives continue to pour into the city from rural reserves, pushed out by hardship rather than drawn by the opportunity that inspires so many Asians, Africans and Latin Americans.

All the while, the city is struggling to maintain its numbers at 650,000, threatened as it is by a brain drain to Alberta, Ontario and the United States. Quietly, thousands of Winnipeg youth are still leaving the city every year, making it almost impossible for it to reach a population of one million -- something Calgary is racing toward -- and the numbers needed to justify public investments like a mass transit system that would in turn draw more people and investment.

That does not seem to discourage Winnipeg, however. This weekend, the city will play host to the seventh annual World Beat Festival, with music from around the world. Next month, delegations from around the world will come to talk, really for the first time in such a forum, about the widespread use of children in war.

The parade of visitors will be treated to a city struggling with the future and the past, on downtown streets that present the gleaming Air Canada building and Portage Place with its striking entrance, a cathedral of glass -- the vibrant look of urban Canada -- nestled next to condemned buildings and the look of decay one would expect to find only in a U.S. inner city.
John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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