All Roads Lead to Portage and Main

May 6th, 2009 by Aaron

Can it be said that all roads lead to Portage and Main? This fabled intersection in downtown Winnipeg is often referred to as the windiest corner in Canada. Recently, Laurel’s mum was visiting our fair city from the Comox Valley in British Columbia. Although Laurel’s parents used to live in Manitoba (and you can read about some of their haunting here), it’s another reference that her mother made that got me thinking. In conversation Laurel mentioned her mum saying something to the effect that at Portage and Main you’ll bump into someone you know. When I expressed my curiosity about this statement, Laurel offered to ask for more details. This is the response she received:

The Corner of Portage and Main

The Corner of Portage and Main

“Dad (Laurel’s grandfather) used to say that if you stood on the corner of Portage and Main, you’d eventually see someone you know…Not sure if this was something he made up or if it was something he had heard. Though, you’ve got to figure after WWII if you were overseas you would’ve met people from all over Canada, and with Winnipeg situated in the middle…Maybe there’s a grain of reason in it.”

Something I constantly reiterate is that Canada is a very small country despite the nation’s vast geographic size. These days our national population hovers just above thirty-three million, however in 1945 it was somewhere closer to twelve million.  It’s not hard to imagine how following the Second World War, with Winnipeg’s industrial infrastructure and proximity to arable farmland, the area would draw many returned soldiers. Although I’m not a Winnipeg historian, it seems there is colloquial truth to the words of Laurel’s grandfather. Is there any reason to believe that despite over sixty years of history, you may still bump into someone you know at the corner of Portage and Main? Maybe I need to stretch the boundaries a little bit.

In July of 2008, about a week after Emma moved from Vancouver to Winnipeg, one side of her family held a large reunion of sorts. Among the food, reminiscing, and games, Emma met her cousin Meredith’s fiancé. In conversation it surfaced that the cousins’ respective beaus had both attended the 30th birthday party of a mutual friend. Bear in mind this birthday party was years before Emma would move to Winnipeg; years before each engagement was announced; and yet interestingly the two men were reacquainted while attending their future fiancés’ family reunion.

In the fall of 2008 I was planning to visit Emma here in Winnipeg. She was already a Winnipegger with more than 3 months of experience under her belt. In that time she had reacquainted herself with some contacts, made a few professional connections, and managed to become close with some of her fiancé’s very good long-time friends. During a telephone conversation she told me that one new friend had done his Master’s degree at the U of M, and while there he befriended a woman who was from Lethbridge, just like Emma. It turns out this woman is someone we know since she attended high school with us both and we had overlapping social circles. I suppose a decade later and two provinces away, the circles were overlapping again…albeit in a more unexpected fashion.

One warm afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a very talented local florist. While she and I discussed the beautiful merchandise and artwork in her shop, the florist pointed toward some unique works of art she retails on behalf of a good friend, a textile artist, working out of Vancouver. When the florist mentioned the artist’s name is Hilary Young, all I could manage was “Scottish Hilary? Hilary with the wonderful personality and amazing red hair?” My new florist friend was dumbfounded, as was I. As we spent the next few minutes fleshing-out the connections, I remembered that of course Hilary and her partner Jim had spent some time living in Winnipeg once they began the immigration process to Canada. One of my very special friends that I met while attending Capilano University in 2002, was a good friend of Hilary and Jim; she’d met the couple while living in Scotland with her own husband who was studying veterinary science. I remember hearing stories about the foursome having great times in Scotland, Vancouver, and other places while travelling together. When I finally met Hilary and Jim a few years after that (once they’d managed to penetrate our Canadian borders), it was like meeting old friends. To discover that Hilary was also connected to this Winnipeg florist (whom I emailed on a whim, out of the blue) was something else entirely.

As the florist and I chatted some more, a young man came into her shop to buy some flowers for his girlfriend. In conversation the florist mentioned that I had recently moved to Winnipeg, and after apologizing for the terrible winter (as Winnipeggers are apt to do), the young man asked me where I had moved from. I told him I spent a lot of time in Vancouver but most recently I was living in Lethbridge. He asked me a couple questions (“Is Lethbridge the place that has a university built into the side of a hill?”…the answer is yes, sort of), before indicating his girlfriend had studied architecture at the U of M with someone from Lethbridge. Almost tempting fate, I dared him to tell me the name of this person. Bingo. Another person I knew from Lethbridge; in fact, a young man who Emma had been through elementary school and junior high with. How do these connections, seeming so completely random, relate to Winnipeg? Or do they relate to Winnipeg at all?

If all roads lead to Portage and Main, can I expect more of these simultaneously comforting and bizarre connections to crop up? I wonder if other people have had similar experiences upon moving to Winnipeg, or in leaving and then returning to this strangely captivating prairie city. While living in Vancouver, much of what I learned about Winnipeg was through my good friend Marianne who was born and raised here. Her tales serve as the backdrop of my adult understanding of Winnipeg. Now when a new friend (@ruthlesstravels) tweets about enjoying a latte on the patio at Bar Italia, I know exactly what she means despite the fact that I’ve never been there. Oh, Winnipeg O’ My Heart. I’m looking forward to what else you’ve kept up your sleeve, or around the corner from our country’s windiest intersection.

16 Responses to “All Roads Lead to Portage and Main”

  1. Marianne says:

    I feel almost famous when I get a mention in your fantastic blogging! This summer when I’m home to visit, you and me, lattes (or beer) on the patio at Bar Italia xo

  2. mrchristian says:

    Great stuff !

    I can’t wait until you discover that we’re the dandruff capital of Canada !

  3. Emma says:

    What a lovely post, Aaron. Can’t wait to discover even more such coincidences.

  4. Shannon says:

    It truly is a small world…apparently with all roads leading through Winnipeg!

  5. Pat J says:

    Because 75% of all directions to anyplace in Winnipeg start with “ok, get onto Portage, and then…”, I’ve heard it said that you can get all the way to Vancouver on Portage Avenue.

  6. Aaron says:

    Pat J – you’re probably right…maybe somebody should test that theory one day?

    Marianne – sounds good! You, me, cold Bronsons and Bar I…August ’09, is it?!

    & Shannon…hopefully your road will lead through Winnipeg sometime in the next year (or sooner!).

  7. linds_c_m says:

    It’s often said, don’t say anything bad about anyone in Winnipeg because you’re talking to their cousin.

  8. Aaron says:

    That’s a good tip Linds…and one I’ll take to heart.
    I really wouldn’t want to trash-talk someone to their cousin!

    It’s also a good piece of regional advice. I haven’t heard that
    about any other part of the country yet.

  9. Michel says:

    Pat J (and Aaron)… it is in fact true that you can get to Vancouver on Portage Avenue. Truth be told, if you made that trip, you’d also go through Kamloops, Calgary and Regina (albeit in the reverse of that order)! This is all due to the wonderful fact that Portage Avenue is an official part of the Trans-Canada Highway (well… most of Portage Ave, anyway. The TCH actually runs through Winnipeg via Fermor, Ste-Anne’s Rd, St-Mary’s Rd, Queen Elizabeth Way, Main St, Broadway, Portage Ave).

    Is it weird that I find that extremely cool and fascinating?? 😉

  10. Aaron says:

    No Michel, that’s not weird. What would be weird is if you got onto Fermor/Ste-Anne’s Rd/ St-Mary’s Rd/Queen Elizabeth Way/Main St/Broadway/Portage Ave…and forgot to get off. This would constitute driving along Portage Ave all the way to Vancouver, and therefore represent a reverse reimagining of the trek Emma, Laurel, and I took to get here. Although, in all fairness, the ladies did fly this trek and I am the only one who drove (at least the second half, from Lethbridge to Winnipeg). If you do accidentally drive to Vancouver, please take pictures. We’ll need them for the blog. That is all.

  11. Ian says:

    The cultural significance of Portage & Main can’t be unstated. I’ve often argued that second only to Bay&Bloor, the nation’s financial heart in TO, P&M is one of the most famous intersections in Canada.

    I used shoot a lot for Ducks Unlimited, and traveled across the entire country and recently have been across the Far North. You say you’re from Winnipeg, everyone would reference P&M, and it’s mythical status as windiest corner in Canada.

    I have often been assigned the task of getting “The Portage&Main” shot but art directors calling from out of town. It’s really disheartening that visually all we have to show for it is some crazy 70’s style bunkers and a rusty old back lit sign that says “Portage Ave”

    I REALLY wish the city would do something about this, make a sign that really plays up the mythic status of the corner, heck it could even post the temperature. Can you imagine the tourists who would wanna to pose under the sign as it read -40C? people would do it for bragging rights!

    Anyway, enough ranting from me. Yes all roads lead back to P&M

    Love the blog, love reading about this city through your eyes. Makes me appreciate what we have.

  12. Aaron says:

    Ian! Thanks for sharing your perspective. I think you’re absolutely right about the city needing some sort of place-marker that tourists and visitors can be photographed in front of. It will provide that quintessential Winnipeg photo-op while solidifying the image of “P & M” for those who are searching for it.

  13. I have “bumped into” 3 friends at (or near) Portage and Main. Granted, they all work in either the Richardson Building or Canwest tower….

  14. MK says:

    I have a story for you. I moved to Winnipeg 5 years ago to go to school. I come from up north. Shortly after moving I met this other girl and we became very close friends. It wasn’t until a couple months later that we found out that her dad and my mom actually dated in high school! They grew up together in Medicine Hat. She actually knew my grandma to!

  15. […] This very passage is one I read ten years ago and decided that Winnipeg was a place I’d like very much live. And although when I moved here I had only one close friend in the city, I had behind me many generations of Manitobans: a vast array of aunts, uncles, cousins and a couple surviving grandparents.  Once I started dating my future husband, Michel, there would be many more opportunities for our families’ stories to intersect. The connections started presenting themselves at a somewhat alarmingly frequent rate.  For instance, we discovered that my sister-in-law’s brother had taught my cousins at Collège Jeanne-Sauvé. It also turned out those same cousins had once visited Michel’s family farm on a school field trip, and indeed eaten a meal with his parents! Another two sets of crossed paths are detailed in Aaron’s post “All Roads Lead to Portage and Main“. […]

  16. […] intersection has been mentioned here on WoMH before, but my favourite post was Aaron’s “All Roads Lead to Portage and Main” – somehow the spot where these two streets meet is symbolic of Winnipeg as a place […]

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