When descending during a flight into Winnipeg on a sweltering August morning, the aircraft dips through a thick milky-grey layer of forest fire smoke. A patchwork of agrarian land emerges, making way to sprawling suburbs and a leafy little city – Winnipeg.
Having lived in Winnipeg for four years (2014-17), it was wonderful to return this August from Montreal to visit loved ones.
An important stop on my visit was the Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth, a beautifully maintained garden. And it is only fitting that I got lost while biking there. A labyrinth after all, like life, is meant to take you down winding paths toward pleasant surprises.
In Carol Shields’ novel Larry’s Party, the main character erroneously receives a brochure about floral arts courses at Red River College. Larry decides to take the courses, becoming a modestly successful maze-maker.
The novel is about chance, mistakes, love, loss and pleasant surprises, but the analogy throughout the novel is clear: life is a maze. We explore its bemusing twists, turns and dead ends – often lost – stumbling through surprises big and small toward a final end point.
“And now, here in this garden maze, getting lost, and then found, seemed the whole point, that and the moment of willed abandonment, the unexpected rapture of being blindly led,” wrote Shields, who spent most of her literary career in Winnipeg.
Winnipeg has its own mazes: Confusion Corner during rush hour, the Exchange District, swerving around hanging cankerworms and aphid droppings during bike rides, which is somehow amazingly charming to me now.
Winnipeg also has mazes of the mind and heart: of love, loss, joy, political and social struggle, personal pain and growth.
My first true love was in Winnipeg along with my first true heartbreak, navigating the butterflies and roses of love and the nettles and thorns of grief and regrowth.
That is what draws me here again – it is a place that poses vital questions.
For example, what is the future of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and Canadians?
Manitoba ought to be at the forefront of this question – it has all the ingredients. Yet it has been a reactionary laggard under the Progressive Conservatives. This is a tragic failure of leadership at a time when it is needed most.
The community have been roses amidst these thorns, putting up orange flags on bridges and orange shirts in homes, showing up at rallies and vigils – collective acts of solidarity, explicit appeals for systemic change now.
There are other mazes still. What is the future of urban development in Winnipeg? This tangled topic takes up a great deal of bar-talk.
For a city with so much potential – a word often used in these parts – the addiction to the automobile and subsequent suburban sprawl continue to hamper what ought to be a vibrant, lively urban core (the Exchange, West Broadway, Corydon, Osbourne). Suburbs sprawl like water on a kitchen table, leaving the urban cup half-full.
There is a lack of political courage to make the city more livable, providing high-density social and affordable housing, eliminating poverty, challenging the automobile’s dominance, and creating safer spaces for community joy. This requires a commitment to economic equity, and serious efforts to address racism and colonialism.
The gravest maze that Winnipeggers navigate was visible from the milky-white sky before touching town: the wildfire of climate change.
To watch daily life in Winnipeg unfold amidst a thick, smoky haze was something from a dystopian novel. Yet multi-lane roads cut and dissect urban space, pickup trucks and big-rigs clambering along. Transport is the largest emitting sector in Manitoba, followed by agriculture. The maze we navigate together is on fire.
What are we to do in the face of these mazes?
A walk through Carol Shields Memorial Labyrinth does not necessarily provide answers, but it certainly helps reflect. Next to the labyrinth is a pond that is almost entirely drained because of drought. An eternal optimist, I fear for the future, but can’t help but smell the roses on a hot summer day.
We bumble through the maze of life and its uncertainties – matters of the heart, politics and social struggle. We get lost in its pleasant, often bewildering, surprises; pricked by its thorns; stopped by the scent of life’s stunning wildflowers. We generally find our way.
It’s the sense of community and solidarity that gives me confidence about Winnipeg’s future: lawn signs, union organizing, social struggle. There’s lots of love here.
What’s around the next bend in the maze depends largely upon dedicated, wonderful people who call this place home. And that gives me hope.
Matthew Brett helped found Communities Not Cuts and Solidarity Winnipeg, which continue today.