Spur Winnipeg Hits Home

Sheila North Wilson moderates "Our Nations in Seven Years," a conversation between Arlen Dumas, Leah Gazan, and Jamie Wilson. (Photo by Dylan Hewlett)
Sheila North Wilson moderates "Our Nations in Seven Years," a conversation between Arlen Dumas, Leah Gazan, and Jamie Wilson. (Photo by Dylan Hewlett)

Teasing central themes out of a festival that operates as a constantly changing three dimensional magazine is no easy task. Spur Winnipeg moved in content as often as it did in location- small town politics discussed in a cozy Exchange District café gave way to documentary filmmaking in a U of W convocation hall that was topped off by architecture and city planning in the high ceilinged Hydro building. And so it went for four days of festival-ing. It’s a happy haze for news junkies and arts lovers alike, but a tricky concoction for the festival Public Fellow—ahem, yours truly—tasked with discerning common strands.

A few days of post-festival musing, however, did—thankfully—yield such strands. And one strand in particular stood out—local stories. Social media newsfeeds and coffee shop corners may seem fixated on the newest Netflix show or the latest development in Crimea, but Spur Winnipeg showed that audiences and panellists alike are just as—if not more—fascinated with the politics, arts, and ideas that directly link into the lives they lead. It seems that the dynamics that truly hit home for people were often dynamics from, well, home.

On a—shall we say—brisk Winnipeg Saturday morning, author Trevor Ferguson discussed his new novel The River Burns. In it he embraces the local eccentricities of Wakefield, Quebec, and makes no effort to ‘internationalize’ or ‘deCanadianize’ his work in order to appeal to larger audiences. Indeed, after his event he joined me in lamenting the inability of some parts of the Canadian film and TV industry to realize what Montreal playwright Michel Tremblay knew decades ago: To tell a universal story you have to tell a local one. Ferguson knows this, Quebec filmmakers seem to know this, American writer Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird certainly knew it, and so does Claire Cameron, who joined Spur Winnipeg the next morning to discuss her new novel The Bear.

Cameron’s novel remains painstakingly true to its context of Algonquin Park just outside of Toronto. It rightly sees attempts to make its setting a generic North American forest in order to appeal to non-Canadian audiences as not only diluting the artistic product, but as actually bad business. People around the world need not know a place to recognize and appreciate a writer authentically engaging with it. This is something American storytellers have known for years (New Mexico may seem like the most unmarketable place south of Windsor, but two words—Breaking Bad), and that Canadian novelists have embraced as well. Other artists working north of the 49th parallel should follow suite.

The local-stories-matter theme moved beyond fiction at a number of other events. A panel on the future relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada told a heartbreaking but hopeful story that is fundamentally tied to this place—its chapter titles include legislation and institutions (i.e. the written or unwritten constitutions of different First Nations, treaties, the Government of Canada’s Indian Act, Canadian federalism, etc.) that contain details unique to the history and political makeup of this country. And they are details worth understanding, appreciating, and/or interrogating  independent of other popular but largely irrelevant political narratives that drift up from the United States.

The biggest testament to the local theme was perhaps one of the best attended events that saw seven accomplished Winnipeggers discuss the future of this city. Architects, professors and pastors weighed in on what the Peg’s story has been, what it should be, and how we should tell it. Whether freezing pipes, downtown revitalization or community consultation programs- people care about the place in which they live. Municipal politics and policies matter; the elected leaders and public administrators at a municipal level matter; local stories matter. Spur Winnipeg lined up global themes with ones closer to home, and—without disparaging the former—demonstrated that those north of the 49th parallel are, and should be, serious about embracing and exploring the latter.

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