Where the Heart Is: Winnipeg lies at the heart of the country

On the flight from Vancouver to Winnipeg, I kept my eyes trained out the window the whole way home.

Over the course of three hours, the mountainous terrain and Pacific blue of the West Coast soften steadily into rolling hills, then wear away into the flat rushing fields of the Prairies.

Manitoba has always struck me as the nation’s middle child. It’s often passed over in the family of provinces, seemingly lacking the natural beauty of British Columbia, the culture of Quebec, the charm of the Maritimes or the commerce of Ontario. We are amiably self-aware of this lack, with our license plates sporting “Friendly Manitoba.” It even acts out like a middle child would, swinging wildly between seasonal temperatures, rocketing up to 30°C in the summers and later plummeting to -40°C in the winters.

And Winnipeg lies at the heart of the country.

My family moved to Winnipeg when I was seven — another family in a long migration of those leaving their homes to start again in what seemed like an isolated tundra. We subscribed to all the Filipino things available to us in Canada: church, any bakery with good pandesal and other Filipinos.

“Don’t forget where you come from,” recited my parents over and over again. “We came to Canada for a better life, but don’t forget where you came from.”

Winnipeg, incidental and nondescript, blurred for us through this mantra. Its particular details didn’t matter, only the nebulous golden dream of “Canada” did — we could have lived in any other stock Canadian city, in Saskatchewan or maybe Ontario. It didn’t matter where we were, just that we had finally arrived.

I spent a lot of time as a kid wishing I could live somewhere more exciting. I wanted to pack up and leave Winnipeg at the first possible moment. I think I spent so much time doing this that I usually never miss Winnipeg at all, even after leaving. Except for the winters.

Like clockwork every September, I start to miss the cold, and every December, I fly back to see my parents. When they pick me up, they come armed with a thick parka and with turon — warm and sticky fried banana rolls — in a paper bag.

My parents downsized the house and moved to a new suburb on the edge of town, so the drive back is long, spent treading over icy streets and catching me up on the tsismis.

I listen and eat in the back seat of the car, laughing as they recite the names of people I grew up with in a tangled list of who’s getting married, who’s having kids, who’s in debt. They point out the new businesses and the failing ones. They drive by the old church, my old school and our old house. I finish one roll of turon and start on another, cracking into a caramelized shell to reveal a golden stripe of banana, carefully sliced and set. I feel sick with gratitude and too much sugar.

We think our hometowns stop for us when we leave them, like pressing pause on a movie. Instead, the scenes move quickly, and the future materializes without us. Suddenly, I am grown up, sitting in a parked car in front of our old house. Christmas lights twinkle from the rooftop and two kids play inside. It’s snowing.

Winter in the Prairies compresses time and space into one straight line. Low-rise commercial buildings and warehouses cling to an even lower horizon. While Vancouver spends its winter months steeped in a gray drizzly fog, everything here pierces — the snow is brilliant and white, and the expanse of hard cloudless sky hovers closely above. It’s hard to breathe and hard to see, the sun flooding everything fluorescent.

But despite the brutal elements, the city seems to draw power from the cold, clean air. Wintertime in the city is when it is at its most proud, its most eccentric, its most miraculous. Winnipeggers will scoff at you for wearing a parka when it’s -10°C and will wear flip-flops and fold-out lawn chairs in 5°C. The city’s rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine, freeze over, ribboning throughout the city to make a huge outdoor skating trail. It’s where everyone I grew up with learned to ice skate, falling down in huge ski pants and licking cinnamon sugar off our lips from the donuts. Some weekends, it felt like we were all there together, all the city’s people streaming down a gleaming silvery path.

On my last day, my parents drove me down to the airport. I kiss them goodbye, promise to call and board my plane.

As the plane takes off over my hometown, I peer out at the city blanketed in white, the only gaps carved through by roads and rivers. I watch until Winnipeg floats silently out of my periphery. I press pause on the movie, knowing that it will all shift again.

I know it is only a matter of time until next December, until the next call of the snow — the reminder to come back to the heart of the country, the centre of everything.