If a town could be likened to a punch in the mouth, Winnipeg would be it

Allan Fotheringham September 20 1976

If a town could be likened to a punch in the mouth, Winnipeg would be it

Allan Fotheringham September 20 1976

If a town could be likened to a punch in the mouth, Winnipeg would be it

Allan Fotheringham

There was a time, as those who remember Glenn Miller will recall, when the word around a Toronto martini glass was that a wretched Vancouver Mafia had taken over the town and was passing out all the good jobs. What Pierre Berton didn’t have, Bernie Braden did, and then there was Andrew Allan with all his radio acolytes, and Ron Haggart and Mario Prizek and Val Sears and Daryl Duke and Ray Gardner and the rest of the webfoot breed.

Robert Fulford, the esteemed critic, has discovered latter-day evidence of another segment of the hinterland swallowing the supposed centre of the realm. It is his contention that the entire population of Winnipeg has been denuded, for the purpose of putting out of work otherwise innocent and harmless Torontonian semi-competents. There is Larry Zolf, offspring of the Marx Bros. (Groucho and Karl); writer Jack Ludwig, critic Martin Knelman, publisher James Lorimer, Peter Herrndorf, the white hope of CBC television; John Hirsch, boss of CBC drama; Tom Hendry, the new force in Toronto Theatre. There is Danny Finkleman, the licensed eccentric; Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman and Melinda McCracken. There are plenty more, of course: Neil Young followed Scott Young; Trent Frayne; Martin O’Malley; Bob Hunter, the author and Green Peace guru; Jim Coleman from his racetrack days; the CPR’S Ian Sinclair—not to mention the immortal Deanna Durbin.

The yeast that has caused all this ferment is rather hard to grasp. Most civilized people spend their lives flying over Winnipeg on their way to somewhere important. One knows something is down there, but does one have the strength to cope with the reality? To land is not to love it, but to be challenged by it, to puzzle a bit, back off and furrow one’s brow. Do the 1940s still exist? Apparently, on a large flat plain. Winnipeg is a broad-shouldered town. It reminds me of those Chaplin movies where it was always regarded as funny when the brawny workman burped garlic into the face of a neighbor too timid to respond. I am too intimidated to criticize. There is a heavy-handed zest, a self-confidence that wells up from the porridgelike mix of the populace. We are all delicate, middle-class graduates of educated tolerance, ever nervous of the nuances of a cocktail party’s supposed slights. Winnipeg knows better. It is wall-to-wall Bunkerism, delighting in raunchy insults that cut across its own racial smorgasbord.

There is a culture shock to an outsider that can be depicted honestly only by re-

vealing the heart of Winnipeg’s intelligentsia. This is a time-honored custom, well familiar to the 200 people who actually run Canada, known as the annual Winnipeg Beer and Skits. It is a tribal affair that truthfully is very hard to describe, given the laws of libel, current standards of obscenity and the knowledge that mother may be listening. Let it only be explained that this famed production of the Winnipeg Press Club is the forerunner of the much tamer Ottawa Press Gallery’s annual dinner, where lucky cabinet ministers escape with only major spear wounds. What the Alley Oop time-machine shift into the Winnipeg milieu reveals is the pure viciousness that these affairs once displayed.

In a skit on new Manitoba Tory leader Sterling Lyon, a doctor in an insane asylum explains that before the “little redheaded fart can be given a lobotomy, we’ll have to give him a brain transplant.” Lyon, with a frozen grin on his countenance, sits beaming in the front row—as does all the Winnipeg elite, including the lieutenantgovernor. The town invented the word masochism. This—and now we’re finally getting to the nub—is what is so intriguing about this sociological striptease. If you wish to understand Winnipeg, you must understand that Beer and Skits is probably the country’s last remaining evidence of an earthy world that you had thought died with Strangler Lewis.

Winnipeg is a throwback—1,000 of the upwardly mobile men in town fighting to

get into what must be the last remaining stag social affair in Canada. To hear 1,000 grown men in 1976 guffawing over jokes about Kotex makes an outsider wonder whether he’s back in high school. It’s easy to sneer, to boggle, but there’s a lesson emerging here. A star attraction is the legendary Winnipeg sportswriter John Robertson, who has been detached from most of the major newspapers in the country for varied and always colorful reasons, and now is a Montreal hot-liner. “Coconut Willy,” as he’s known locally, launches into 45 minutes of incredibly obscene antiQuebec jokes—which is what the crowd wants. They love it. An astute Western Canadian journalist leans over and says, “If the Liberals want to know what’s up in the west, they should check in here.” He’s sadly correct. A few months after Robertson, the Grits hit 29% on the Gallup. Beer and Skits hit it first. As litmus paper, it runs first class, even if the jokes don’t.

We are diverging a bit from the point, which is Winnipeg’s strength. The town, as mentioned, glories in its diversity. Anyone who has lived here comes away with cultural cross-pollination. There is a skit in which a real-life Liberal lawyer who happens to be head of the Manitoba Legal Aid system explains that “scotch is the only liquor named after a people. After all, can you buy a mickey of Kraut? A bottle of Bohunk? A fifth of Frog? How about a crock of Wop? A jug of Chink? You can’t even get a jigger of Nigger.” They loved it—including a black member of the cast. It brought down the house. I fell off my chair. You can only do that in a province where Premier Ed Schreyer (who is so leery of his Mennonite rural constituents that he refuses to be photographed smoking) forms a first cabinet of a racial mosaic composed of a Cherniack, a Uskiw, a René Toupin, a Reverend Philip Petursson, a Burtniak, a Borowski, has as his executive assistant a French Canadian, and lives in a house beside the tracks, just past the Esso refinery, which the Premier bought at a tax sale after the bootlegger owner skipped town.

It is a town that has no outer doubts. Whereas Vancouver poses, fascinated, in its mirror, and Montreal gazes sardonically at grasping Toronto, and Toronto is torn with penis envy of New York, Winnipeg is serene, oblivious, profane. It does not envy anyone. It is civic karma.

Manitoba is nowhere as a province, outside the stream of registering in the national imagination, but Winnipeg is a fullmuscled city. Not much finesse—but don’t dare mention it for fear of those muscles.