Our Winter Wonderland

January 1, 1998 by Diana Sims

Wrapped in woollies, nibbling Beavertail pastries or sipping steaming cups of cocoa, we make our merry way to winter carnivals from coast to coast. Whether it’s Nova Scotia’s Springhill Chilly Willy winter carnival, Ottawa’s Winterlude or Winnipeg’s Le Festival du Voyageur, carnivals offer communities a chance to actually celebrate snow and ditch post-Christmas psychological and retail blues. This year, more than two million men, women, children–and even pets–will gather for frolics in the snow.

We thrill with the chills of carnivals because they really do have physical, social and emotional benefits to fight midwinter melancholy, says one psychological counsellor. “Winter often brings with it an increase of clientele exhibiting symptoms of depression. People are often less active physically and socially during this time,” says Cynthia Howard- Voyer, of Espanola, Ont. “Carnivals afford us the chance to get out, get active and interact with others.”

Howard-Voyer enjoys winter carnivals with her two children and their sheltie dog, C.J.

“Bluntly, it’s pure, unadulterated good, clean fun. It’s such a nice break from the mid-January blues,” says Stew Park, who tucked his six-foot, three-inch frame into a toddler’s trike to race in -28º C weather three blocks down the main street of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., joining the fun of last year’s Bon Soo winter carnival. “I was the fastest damn triker!” Park laughs. His prize–hearty congratulations and dinner at a local restaurant.

Carnivals are shucking off the “me” generation atmosphere of ‘80s beer gardens and all-night parties, to embrace the feel of ‘90s family fun. “More and more we’re targeting the tourism market with Winterlude as a family event,” says Patrice Miron, spokesman for the National Capital Commission that organizes Ottawa’s three-weekend extravaganza.

While carnivals can lift sagging retail sales, fill empty winter hotel rooms, and provide seasonal work for musicians, security people or hot-dog vendors, they also uplift community spirit. “People get a sense of identity, and that’s often difficult in an urban setting,” says Jaye Robinson, director of special events for North York’s winter carnival in southern Ontario.

Winterlude and Quebec City’s winter carnival woo welcome tourist dollars, but they also coax citizens to get out and exercise, spend a little and just have fun. Hundreds of smaller carnivals are held every year across Canada and while many of them aren’t known nationally, they do provide wonderful escapes from the winter blahs. What follows is a quick stop at some of Canada’s larger carnivals.

The grand-daddy of them all is in La belle province. The Quebec Winter Carnival offers 16 days of carnival capers featuring Canada’s most notable resource–snow. From late January through mid-February, this historic, walled city opens its gates to more than a million visitors–170,000 from out of province–as events are staged on the icy shores of the St. Lawrence River and snow-swept Plains of Abraham. Crowds cheer as canoe teams race the frigid river.

The Plains, once the battleground where Wolfe fought Montcalm, becomes a children’s playground with a sugar shack, an ice mountain for climbing, mini- golf on ice and dog-sled rides. “This really warms the area, the snow sculptures here remind me of my childhood,” says Caroline Samson, public relations director for the grand master of hotels. The Château Frontenac towers like a sentinel over Lower Town, an area first settled by the French in 1608.

Carnival is one of the Frontenac‘s busiest winter times, second only to New Year’s. Staff dress in the traditional red “arrow” sashes while musicians stroll hotel arcades.

“This is all part of our global strategy to liven up the winter. We try to have the warmest atmosphere possible,” says Samson.

But carnival, she reminds, is about enjoying winter outdoors. “Mostly we want to bring our guests outside; it’s really magical there. Winter-time is a whole different place and we have the best stage. Our role is to help make carnival happen.”

Indeed, with 200-plus carnival activities, both those eager to challenge the frosty outdoors and those who choose to cozy up indoors are satisfied. A giant toboggan slide outside the Frontenac attracts the brave, while other crazy carnival-goers join the bain de neige snow bath. Clad only in swim-suits, these souls “romp and roll” in the white stuff. Skiing, skating, sledding and snowmobiling are common carnival fare. Indoor events include photography, art and craft exhibits.

“It’s very interesting because it’s a mix of sporting and recreational activities that warm people’s hearts,” says Martine Chantal, the carnival’s communication secretary.

Culinary comforts remain close at hand as hotels and taverns along the cobbled streets offer shots of caribou, the customary carnival drink of wine and high-proof alcohol, guaranteed to invigorate body, soul and business coffers. Hearty Canadian pea soups and sugary-satisfying maple syrup desserts also aim to please.

In its historic terraced setting, the Quebec carnival began in 1894. W.C. Van Horne, of Canadian Pacific Railway fame, was instrumental in organizing that first festival.

Skating contests, sleigh rides and snowshoe races encouraged visitors to experience outdoor Quebec–thus the city’s self-acclaimed moniker of “snow capital” of North America. Carnivals were sporadic until 1955, when a group of business people decided an annual carnival would stimulate a stagnant winter economy. That it has.

The Quebec Winter Carnival is now ranked in world renown with Rio de Janeiro’s carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Though the Quebec carnival costs about $3.5 million to produce, and takes nine to 10 months to organize, it generates an estimated $54 million in regional economic benefits. Touted as a driving force in the provincial tourist trade, the extravagant celebration is Quebec City’s third-largest industry and festival activities alone ring in about $28 million.

Bonhomme Carnaval, the red-tuqued, grinning snow mascot, calls the city’s glittering, temporary ice palace home. More than 6,600 blocks of ice, weighing up to 10 kilograms each, are used to create this winter castle. Colored lights adorn adjacent buildings, completing the magic.

Attendance tallies indicate a sharp increase in the number of European and Asian visitors, thanks in part to Bonhomme’s goodwill world tours. This desire to experience another culture and celebrate earlier eras also captures Canadian carnival-goers.

Scooting west, Le Festival du Voyageur, in Winnipeg’s French quarters–St. Boniface–celebrates the joie de vivre of the fur-trade era, and is reportedly Western Canada’s largest winter carnival. Sipping apple cider, chewing maple taffy or sampling cajun cuisine are gastronomic attractions. Visitors can join a street party on Provencher Boulevard or view exhibits of the 18th century Red River Colony. Story-telling, comedy nights and music–everything from fiddling to cajun–attract crowds nightly. René Comeault, a survey technician with Manitoba Natural Resources, takes holiday time to volunteer as a bartender. “Evenings are for adults. It’s a chance to meet old friends and you meet a lot of relatives you don’t see all year. It’s also part of my heritage…I get other people to go, too. I say ‘try this food, try that,’” he says.

Skirting back east, Pomquet toasts its abundant Nova Scotia Acadian culture with Carnaval d’Hiver. Here, taste treats like fricot–a chicken and dumpling chowder–or pâté–a traditional chicken and pork meat pie–coupled with Acadian music are tempting accompaniments to the carnival’s old-time dance and winter parade.

“Carnival is a great way to celebrate winter’s beauty and it encourages people to get out and take advantage of the snow,” says David Maillet, carnival president.

And what’s snow without snowmen? Quebec’s Bonhomme Carnaval is just one of a cast of northern characters who spend their winters south of the North Pole. Boule de Neige, a snowball-shaped polar bear, is mascot for Montreal’s La fête des neiges.

Legend has it La fête des neiges is “a place where the cold never stings…snow there welcomes all who come, and fun and games are never done!” Inner-tube sliding, curling, luge rentals and snowshoe tours of the picturesque Île Sainte-Hélène mark this winter romp. “If we want to keep healthy in winter we have to go outside,” remarks Marie Bouchard, the carnival’s public relations writer.

La fête des neiges attracts mostly Montrealers, she adds. The Quebec Winter Carnival and Ottawa’s celebrated Winterlude are keen competitors.

Winterlude takes a delicious bite out of winter with its trademarked Beavertails–a delectable something, somewhere between a pastry and a donut–and three weekends of capital-quality fun. Carnival mascots, the Ice Hogs–Mama, Papa and twins, Noumi and Nouma–ara often found skating the 7.8 kilometres of the frozen Rideau Canal. Dotted with hot chocolate stands and warm-up huts that smell of woollen mittens and childhood memories, the skate-way curves from the National Arts Centre to Dows Lake, home to a sea of competition-class snow sculptures. It is one of several venues scattered across Ottawa-Hull; in Hull, a winter ice maze and frozen playground keep youngsters hopping.

This year more than 600,000 visitors will help salute Winterlude’s 20th anniversary. And last year almost one million Canadians tuned in to watch the Great Canadian Ice Breaker, a televised ice extravaganza featuring top artists and skaters. Organized by the NCC, with corporate and private partners, Winterlude, too, touts Canadian culture and climate. “We’re trying to promote national unity and offer a meeting place for all Canadians. Locals and foreigners alike experience winter…and this should convince them winter is a lot of fun. And Winterlude is bringing more Canadians together: 35 per cent are from out of town and that’s up from 29 per cent in 1994,” remarks Miron.

The NCC spends about $1 million presenting Winterlude and, though most activities are free, the carnival helps chase away post-Christmas spending slumps. “We certainly have good figures about this. The fact that Winterlude is attracting more visitors means more spending,” Miron adds. A 1997 survey indicated Winterlude generated $42.5 million–an increase of $13 million over 1991.

Concurrent charity activities, such as a bed race and relay, have aided area hospitals. Busiest times are three February weekends, with limited weekday activities. This makes the carnival attractive as a short-term destination package and offsets the risk of bad weather ruining an entire festival. “We’re ending up with a trend that two out of three weekends…serve us well,” Miron notes.

“And if the weather isn’t so good, people go in to restaurants or stores so the carnival is good rain or snow or shine,” adds Dawn Murray, communications manager for the Ottawa Tourism and Convention Authority. “We know Winterlude is the biggest event to bring people to the community. It definitely places Ottawa as a winter destination.” The authority represents 400 hotels, restaurants, retail outlets, bed and breakfasts, museums and tour operators. “The hotels say ‘if only we could have another one in January!’” chuckles Murray.

Deneen Perrin, communications manager for Ottawa’s Château Laurier hotel–which overlooks the Rideau Canal–agrees. “People book far in advance for those weekends…. It definitely gives us that extra mile in winter,” she adds. Kids’ Castle, a supervised children’s play area, is one festival feature the Château offers Winterlude guests.

Winterlude, too, has a family focus: The NCC sponsors the Capital Family Experience Contest, where one family from each province and territory wins a five-day trip to the capital region. “Meeting fellow Canadians from coast to coast…as one nation, has been the most memorable experience,” says Bill Rivers of Whitehorse after his family participated in 1995.

The North York Winter Carnival is one example of a community carnival that has successfully repositioned itself as a winter weekend get-away destination. “We’re pulling from all over Ontario and now the border states,” says Jaye Robinson. The three-day carnival is organized by the municipality and counts 140,000 revellers. Headliners like Rodney Brown and his friends–Gertrude the Guitar, Dulcie the Dulcimer and Bill the Bilingual Banjo–demonstrate family appeal.

With limited marketing funds, Robinson relies heavily on volunteers. In 1997, the carnival made $82,000, thanks in part to the 50 groups and 1,000 volunteers involved. Lilian Jardine, a former president of North York Branch, has worked the carnival since its beginning. “I enjoy it because it is a community affair and based on the family. It’s just good for the community,” says Jardine, who along with 20 other Legionnaires, takes shifts selling popcorn.

Jardine and the other volunteers at North York Branch are examples of the kind of support Legionnaires across Canada lend to carnival activities.

“The Legion branch is one of the pillars of our carnival. They always have tons of volunteers and we never have to even blink or worry that they won’t show up…groups do it for profile, not profit,” declares Robinson.

But businesses do profit. North York estimates more than $4.4 million was generated through the 1996 carnival. “We talk to taxi drivers, hotels, restaurants, retailers and they all just boast huge revenues that weekend,” says Robinson.

Winter carnivals, like other sports, recreational and arts activities, depend heavily on corporate sponsors and partners. Robinson also serves as president of Festivals and Events Ontario, a provincial association listing 250 events. One of the member benefits is to promote partnerships for cultural celebrations, tourism and recreational opportunities.

The association encourages events to conduct economic impact studies to strengthen the message that corporate support for festivals makes sound business sense.

Corporations earn profile with their injections of cash, sponsorships or donated services. For example, Canadian Tire and Loto-Québec have supported La fête des neiges, while Bell Mobility and Federal Express have helped make Winterlude merrier.

Sliding up to Northern Ontario, the Ontario Winter Carnival Bon Soo’s $250,000 budget is augmented by $100,000 worth of services “in kind”–from courtesy brochures to donated dinners. “If I had to pay for the help by the hour, it would be right out of the water,” says Donna Gregg, Bon Soo’s general manager.

Bon Soo is a non-profit carnival that raises all its event, rent, salary, advertising and security funds. Carnivals, too, need insurance: Bon Soo carries $5 million in liability against the off chance a serious accident occurs. There’s never been a serious one, “just a few bumps and bruises, praise God,” reflects Gregg, crossing her fingers.

With the Sault’s 10-day carnival now 35 years old, Gregg readily admits to scalping ideas from larger winter festivals. “You take the big concept and you just finagle with it until it works.” Bon Soo has a $3 button that gives the wearer admittance to more than 50 events; the idea was first tested at North America’s reportedly oldest winter festival in Minneapolis. More than 20,000 buttons, bearing the rotund Mr. Bon Soo, were sold in this city of 81,000 in 1997. “Not too shabby,” remarks Gregg wryly, noting total attendance figures topped 100,000.

On any given carnival day 5,000 people wander the downtown snow-sculpted Fantasy Kingdom. “Bon Soo is excellent for my business, people wanna have fun…but they come in to warm up,” says Reggie Daigle, a downtown tavern owner. Daigle sponsors a different event each day. He pays a small carnival fee to be a sponsor but profits big-time.

“Bon Soo is like a ‘fifth season.’ As soon as New Year’s is over it’s something to look forward to, ” Gregg says. Snopitch, snow volleyball and the old winter carnival standby–a polar bear swim–have stood Bon Soo in good stead. But partnering the carnival with commercial ventures such as ski resort deals could bolster everybody’s business, according to a city marketing spokesperson.

And as a sign of the commercial times, Bon Soo is on the Internet. “We get calls from the weirdest places–like Australia. I don’t think they’re going to come but it’s nice to get these outlandish calls,” adds Gregg.

Taking a quick look west again, Alberta boasts the Calgary Winter Festival, the Jasper in January Mountain Festival of Fun, and an international dog-sled race in Canmore. British Columbians, too, salute the season. Dawson Creek hosts Winterscape, Kimberly cheers with Winterfest, Snofest happens in Lumby, and Logan Lake chills out with the Polar Carnival.

Despite the elements or maybe because of them, carnivals serve as a healthy rebuttal to all that is cold; they put some win into winter, joy into January and fun into February! For further information, we suggest you contact provincial tourism associations for events in your area or to learn more about events in other areas.

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