Category Archives: History

History Hunting in the Cemetery

I visited a cemetery in Drake Saskatchewan that is across the road from the site of the former North Star Mennonite Church. I found the gravestone of my great grandparents Peter and Marie Schmidt. Peter was the father of my grandfather Peter M. Schmidt whose immigration story was the inspiration for my novel Lost on the Prairie. Peter and Marie are characters in the novel as well.

I have a photo of my great grandfather Peter H. Schmidt which I inherited from my mother. I have not been able to find a photo of my great-grandmother Marie or my grandfather as a child.

According to the gravestone my great grandfather Peter was born in 1856 and died in 1923. My great-grandmother Marie was born in 1858 and died about a year and a half after her husband did.

This is consistent with the data found in the Schmidt Family Tree book I have.

Right next to my great grandparents is the grave of their son Alvin. Alvin had epilepsy and was blind. After my great grandparents died he moved in with my grandparents and lived with them. My mother said he helped with work on the farm and in the house and he did leatherwork. Alvin is also a character in my novel.

Besides Alvin, my great-grandparents had nine other children. Five of them William, Herman, Emelia, Anna, and Lottie predeceased them. The five that survived them were Katie, Peter (my grandfather) Martha, Alma, and Alvin.

From a memoir written by my Great Aunt Alma, I know my great grandparents lived in a sod house when they first came to Canada and worked very hard. Eventually, they were able to build a wooden house and some buildings for their farm equipment. One of those buildings burned when it was struck by lightning. My great grandfather loved to sing and after a hard day of work would sit in his rocking chair and sing one hymn after another. He died on the same day in 1923 that three of his sons had gone to the train station in Rosthern, Saskatchewan to help transport some 750 Mennonite refugees who had just come to Canada from Ukraine.

My grandparents are buried in the North Star Church cemetery as well. My grandfather died in an accident in 1961 when he was 71 years old. My grandmother lived for thirteen years more in Saskatoon with her daughter, my Aunt Viola, although Grandma was a frequent visitor to our home in Steinbach, Manitoba. I have Peter and Annie meet for the first time in my novel.

My grandparents Peter and Annie Schmidt on their wedding day
My Grandma Annie came to visit us in Steinbach when my youngest brother Mark was born

My visit to the old church cemetery in Drake helped me learn some new things about family and also raised a bunch of questions about their lives that I am going to try and answer with more research. The photos I took at the graveyard will make a valuable addition to the presentations I will do about my novel.

Other posts………

Sai Wan War Cemetery

The Catacombs- Myth and Reality

Anatomy of a Photograph

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Filed under Family, History, Lost on the Prairie

Mom’s First Day of School in 1931

My mother Dorothy Schmidt is to the left in this photo

Today is the first day of school for many children in Canada and it reminds me of this photo of my mother and her sister Viola on the first day of school in 1931. Mom was six years old. Someone has penciled on the back of the photo Dorothy’s first day of school.

I love looking at all the details in the photo. My Mom has a book under her arm which I think might be her Book 1 Canadian reader. Mom told me that for each grade in school they had a different reading book with poetry and fiction and stories about nature and history.

Check out the rather battered black lunch kit my mother’s sister is carrying. My grandmother always sewed her daughters’ dresses and from the material sticking out of both the girl’s sleeves I’m guessing the dresses were matching.

I just love the girl’s wool hats and woolen stockings. I think their grandmother made them.

My great grandmother Marie Jantz

My mother’s grandmother lived with her family till Mom was sixteen and her grandmother died. There were few nursing homes for the elderly in the 1930s. Mom said her grandmother was constantly knitting things for her family.

This is the one-room school near Drake Saskatchewan that my mother attended in 1931. Check out the kids coming to school by horse and buggy.
When it was very cold in winter my Mom said her Dad might take them to school in a horse-drawn caboose. Here the caboose is outside their farmhouse ready to leave. The kids would have hot bricks their Mom heated on the wood stove under their feet to keep warm.
The Kansas School in Drake Saskatchewan

The Kansas School had grades 1-8 and Mom thought up to 50 kids attended at a time. It was called the Kansas School because most of the children who attended it were from families who had immigrated to Canada from Kansas or other mid-western American states at the turn of the century.

My Mom with her grade one class. Mom is third from the right.

Mom’s teacher in grade one was Miss Agnes Regier and Mom really liked her. At the end of her first school year her class put on a little musical on the porch of Miss Regier’s house and all their parents came to watch. Mom also remembers how they used to chant their spelling words out loud together letter by letter. 

At recess, they liked to skip in pairs and they had skipping rhymes to chant as they did so. Mom said they also played lots of cricket using the tree stumps on the schoolyard as wickets. In winter they made a slide on the schoolyard with boxes and boards. Their stockings would be soaked when they came in and they had to take turns standing by the register to dry them.

The children at the Kansas School in the 1930s with their teacher Hans Dyck. My Mom is in the second row just to the right of Mr. Dyck’s shoulder.

In grades 3-8 Mom had a teacher at the Kansas School named Hans Dyck. He was quite strict but an excellent musician who taught his students to sing in four-part harmony and entered them in music festivals where they always took first place.

Mr. Dyck introduced them to world geography and they learned the names of the countries of the world and their capitals and even made topography maps from paste and plaster. They did science experiments and learned about masterpieces by famous artists. Mom’s favorite time of day was right after lunch when Mr. Dyck read aloud to them.

Today many parents will be snapping photos of their children as they set off to begin a new school year, just like my grandparents did in 1931 when their daughters headed off to class.

Other posts……….

They Wore Masks Too

My Father-in-Law Was Born in a School for the Deaf

Don’t Speak German

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Filed under Canada, Education, Family, History

Learning About Winnipeg History From Books For Kids

I write middle-grade historical fiction and so I do lots of reading in that area. I’ve developed a particular interest in Winnipeg history in the last year since I have been unable to travel to other places. Two books written for middle-grade kids that look at important times in Winnipeg history have been recent reads.

Colleen Nelson photo from Great Plains Publishing

Colleen Nelson has written two engaging, award-winning middle-grade novels about a West Highland Terrier named Harvey. Harvey Holds His Own is the second in the series. Harvey’s owner, a junior high school student named Maggie begins to volunteer in a retirement home. Harvey helps her develop a special relationship with many of the residents in particular with Mrs. Fradette who tells Maggie all about the great Winnipeg flood of 1950.

Through photos and stories, Mrs. Fradette describes the dike that was built around her neighborhood, how her family moved all their furniture and belongings to the second floor of their home, how her brother’s Scout troop helped with flood relief, and how the threat of the rising waters necessitated evacuation to the small community of Laurier Manitoba. There, in her grandfather’s car repair garage Mrs. Fradette developed the interests that would lead to her becoming the first female car mechanic in Manitoba.

Harriet Zaidman

Harriet Zaidman’s City on Strike is about the Winnipeg general strike of 1919. We experience that turbulent time through the eyes of Jack and Nellie who are from a working-class Jewish family living in the north end of the city. 13-year-old Jack has a job as a newsboy in order to bring in money for the household since his Dad is out of work and still recovering after falling victim to the recent flu epidemic. Nellie is a student at Aberdeen School.

Jack and Nellie are caught up in the action on June 21 when the police attack during a peaceful march in support of the strike. Jack offers help to photographer Lou Foote who is recording the striker’s march on film. Foote is a real person well-known for his work chronicling the history of Winnipeg. Nellie witnesses the overturning of the streetcar a classic moment in the strike and is led to safety by her school teacher Miss Ross.

Both Harriet Zaidman and Colleen Nelson have provided great stories about important events in Winnipeg’s past. Although their books were written for young audiences, adults will also find them an interesting and engaging way to learn about our city’s history.

Other posts………….

Bloody Saturday

Kids and the Flood of the Century

Strike- The Mural

A Romantic Site

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Filed under Books, History, Winnipeg

They Wore Masks Too

Kids going to school during the dust bowl

COVID -19 isn’t the first time children in Canada have had to wear masks. The children in the photo above are setting off to school in the 1930s when a series of severe dust storms and long periods of drought caused great hardship. This era has come to be known as the Dust Bowl. Although the pandemic has been a difficult time for Canadian kids the Dust Bowl was much worse in many ways.

If a dust storm was advancing everyone tried to stay inside and if they had to go out they wore masks because people could choke to death if their lungs filled up with dust. If there were any cracks in the walls or floors of a house the dirt and sand would find their way inside and into food and onto furniture. Children sometimes slept in clothes and beds gritty with sand and dirt.

Family walking in a dust storm

Kids continually had red irritated eyes from the dust and some contracted dust pneumonia when too much dust got into their lungs. Babies had wet clothes placed over their mouths and noses to keep dust from choking them. Children often went hungry because no crops or produce could be grown and stores were forced to close as were schools, sometimes for weeks at a time.

School children covering their mouths and faces during a dust storm in the 1930s

There was no weather forecasting so people just had to watch the skies and many parents didn’t send their kids to classes because they were scared they would be caught in a dust storm going to and from school. If children were at school when a dust storm started their classroom could suddenly grow dark like it was nighttime and teachers had to light lanterns in the middle of the day so children could see to read and write. Their classroom could quickly fill with a kind of dusty fog. If they thought it was safe enough children and teachers would walk home with towels over their faces, but sometimes students were kept at school overnight to make sure they didn’t lose their way walking home or choke on the dust.

If children couldn’t go to school and had to stay inside there were no televisions, video games, or even many books to entertain them. Most children lived on farms and they also witnessed their parents’ distress about their devastated crops and gardens. They watched the family livestock die due to a lack of food and water.

An abandoned Dust Bowl farm.

Countless children became homeless as crops failures led to their families losing their houses and property. Sometimes the roof of a home would literally collapse under the weight of the sand and dirt on top of it. On the Canadian prairies, some 250,000 families simply abandoned their homesteads. Some families wandered nomadically looking for a new place in a different province to make a home and have a chance to start over.

Migrating family during the Dust Bowl

The pandemic has been very hard on children there is no question about that, but we may take at least a little solace in the fact that children from another century experienced much greater hardships and survived, going on to build meaningful lives for themselves and their families.

Other posts……….

An Inspiration For Our Time

My Grandmother’s Childhood

The Remarkables

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Filed under Canada, COVID-19 Diary, History

Three Determined Women

Learning about the history of a woman’s right to vote in Quebec City

They worked for more than 20 years to earn the right to vote!!  When I visited Quebec City I learned about an amazing trio who dedicated themselves to securing the right to vote for Quebec women.  Canadian women earned the right to vote federally in 1918 but it wasn’t till 22 years later that women in Quebec attained the right to vote in provincial elections. Equal voting privileges for women became a reality because of the dedication of Thérèse Casgrain, Idola St. Jean and Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie.

Thérèse Casgrain led the League for Women’s Rights and hosted a Radio Canada program for women called Fémina. Idola St. Jean was a McGill professor who led the Canadian Alliance for Women’s Vote in Quebec. She wrote a bilingual column for the Montreal Herald. In 1933 she founded the magazine La Sphère féminine. Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie was on the Provincial Committee for Women’s Suffrage. She organized female workers and fought for the right for women to attend university. She wrote a book about women and the law.

These determined women and their organizations faced all kinds of adversaries. The clergy, politicians, journalists, and even most women in Quebec did not think women should be full-fledged citizens with the same legal rights as men. They believed a woman’s place was in the home raising a future generation of French- Canadians.

A statue on the grounds of the Quebec Legislature honors these determined women.  They repeatedly organized marches in Quebec City to gain recognition for their cause. They sent King George V a petition signed by 10,000 Quebec women. Each year they managed to find a politician willing to sponsor a bill in the Quebec legislature granting women the right to vote. It took the introduction of fourteen such bills before one was successfully passed on April 18, 1940.

These three Quebec women fought long and hard for the right to vote. At a time when many states in our neighboring country are passing laws that will make it harder for some people to exercise their right to vote, we need to remember that within some of our own provinces here in Canada it wasn’t that long ago that the right to vote excluded half the population. Thérèse Casgrain, Idola St. Jean, and Marie Lacoste Gérin-Lajoie remind us to appreciate our right to vote and never take it for granted.

Other posts……….

The Canadian Woman Who Painted the United Nations

The Great Canadian Nanaimo Bar

James Bond Is From Winnipeg

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Filed under Canada, feminism, History

A Firehall That Looks Like A Castle

I actually stopped to take a photo of this old fire hall in St. Boniface because it had the date 1907 on it. That is the year my grandfather immigrated to Canada. I have written a book inspired by his rather incredible immigration experience called Lost on the Prairie.

While the date on the building caused me to stop initially…. as I walked around the more than a century-old structure at 202 Rue Dumoulin looking at it from different angles I became intrigued and wanted to learn more about it.

I discovered the fire hall was built to replace an earlier one constructed in 1904. It was designed by Victor Horwood who also designed the St. Boniface City Hall which stands directly behind the fire hall. The station featured two towers. The taller one was used for drying fire hoses and the smaller one was a bell tower. The tops of the two towers were designed to give the feel of a medieval castle.

The Fire Hall in 1910- with horses and wagons serving as the ‘fire trucks’ of their dayPhoto from the Manitoba Archives

The fire hall had a full basement and a two-storey stable for the Percheron horses. The roof was metal and plain beige brick covered the outside. Inside there were fir floors, a tin ceiling, plaster walls and a metal spiral staircase connecting the floors. Originally the building had three arched front doors and the name of the station was above them.

A fire brigade gathers outside the St. Boniface Fire Hall in 1914

The building had a dormitory space for the firefighters, a place to keep fire fighting equipment, a workshop and storage for hay for the horses. There was a traditional fire pole reaching from the third floor where the firefighters slept to the first floor where the wagons and horses were kept. The station was equipped with steam heat, electricity and sewer.

The back of the station

The station was still operational in 1968 when its staff helped to fight the fire at the St. Boniface Basilica but in the 1970s the building was converted from a fire hall to a museum and by 2010 was only being used for storage. This last year spring it was sold despite the efforts of local citizens and history buffs to prevent that from happening.

Postcard of the Fire Hall from the digital collection at the Winnipeg Public Library

The St. Boniface Fire Hall has been deemed a historical building so it can not be demolished.

Other posts…………

Living at the Hospital

Lunch at an Old Train Station

Between Dog and Wolf


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Filed under History, Winnipeg

Nature and An Excellent Book

You may have noticed I’ve been off the internet for the last couple of days. I didn’t post to this blog or do any posts on social media. My brain and body needed a little break and I took it by going camping for the first time in some forty years.

We slept in a tent and woke to the sound of the dawn chorus of the birds.

We did some hiking and cooked meals over a fire.

We went for an evening boat ride spotting eagles and loons and pelicans and beavers and admiring the perfect reflection of the trees in the glassy water.

Instead of the daily writing, I usually do, I read Michelle Good’s book Five Little Indians which just won the Governor General’s award for literature. Five Little Indians tells the story of five residential school survivors. Michelle develops her characters with rich language and descriptive scenes that allow the reader to get to know them in a deeply personal way. Each of the five protagonists narrates their own story but their lives are braided together in many different ways.

The author of Five Little Indians sixty-five-year-old Michelle Good is a member of the Saskatchewan Red Pheasant Cree Nation and the daughter and granddaughter of residential school survivors. She is a lawyer who has represented residential school survivors and she has studied hundreds of psychological assessments of survivors of childhood abuse in order to understand how that experience could impact people’s lives. She writes from a place of experience and knowledge.

The five characters in Michelle’s book were sent to the same residential school in British Columbia. Their residential school stories are sad, terribly, terribly, sad and sometimes I wanted to just close the book and not read on. But……..Michelle follows each child into their challenging adulthood and helps us see the strengths of their character and their innate goodness. Unlike many books, I have read about the devastating consequences of the residential school system, Michelle’s book actually left me with a feeling of hope. I so admired the resilience of her characters.

Many people wondered how best to mark this Canada Day in the face of the devastating news about the discovery of so many graves of residential school children. Should it be a time to celebrate, as usual, or a time to mourn, a time to learn, a time to protest?

Spending a couple of days in the beauty of Canada’s natural world and reading an ultimately hopeful book about a tragic chapter in our country’s past seemed a good fit for me.

How did you spend July 1?

Other posts…………..

15 Reasons I Am Thankful to Live in Canada

Canada – A Country For All Seasons

Two Breathtakingly Beautiful Books

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Filed under Books, Canada, History

Paris/Ojibwa

Paris/Ojibwa by Robert Houle – photographed at the Art Gallery of Ontario

During this time when the world has been dealing with a deadly virus, I have been reminded of an art installation I saw at the Art Gallery of Ontario in the summer of 2017 that illustrated the impact of a deadly virus on a group of Indigenous dancers.

Created in 2010 by the renowned Indigenous artist Robert Houle who is originally from Winnipeg, the work titled Paris/Ojibwa is a moving memorial to Ojibwa dancers who died while entertaining the French Court in 1845.

The story starts with American artist George Catlin who travelled extensively in the west painting hundreds of portraits of Indigenous people.  He decided to bring his ‘Indian Gallery’ to Europe and display it there. He thought he might attract more viewers for his exhibit if he brought along an Indigenous dance troupe organized by George Henry Maungwudaus an Ojibwa interpreter.

George Henry Maungwudaus the leader of the Indigenous dance troupe that went to Paris. His wife and three of his children were among those who died on the trip to Europe.

The troupe performed in London and at the royal court in Paris where King Louis Philipe presented the dancers with medals.  Unfortunately, six of the troupe caught smallpox in Europe. They died never to return to Canada

Robert Houle, Paris/Ojibwa (detail) image from an essay by Shirley Madill for the Art Canada Institute

Robert Houle has included the names of some of the dancers at the very top of the installation. He has shown the dancers as a Shaman, Warrior, Dancer and Healer respectively and they are seen looking out at the horizon of their home in Canada. Each horizon has a specific physical reference. They are views of the prairie from the Sandy Bay First Nations cemetery near Lake Manitoba. Artist Robert Houle is a member of the Sandy Bay First Nation.

Robert Houle, Paris/Ojibwa (detail) image from an essay by Shirley Madill for the Art Canada Institute

Underneath each portrait is an image of the smallpox virus that killed them.

Robert Houle has created the portraits on the walls of a reconstructed Parisian salon with a marble floor. There is a bowl of sage on a pedestal at the front of the salon and I could hear soft drum beats as I viewed the installation. 

According to an April CBC article Indigenous people make up 10% of Manitoba’s population but account for 70% of COVID-19 infections. It also states that American First Nations people are dying of COVID-19 at twice the rate of the white population.

Robert Houle’s artwork reminds us how the effects of colonization have impacted the health of Indigenous Canadians for nearly two centuries.

Other posts…….

Art That Makes You Feel Sick

Old Sun and Emily Carr

Locked Away

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Filed under Art, Canada, History

You Should Have Asked The Kids!

I saw this graph on social media yesterday. It was from an Abacus Data survey and illustrated Canadians’ knowledge about residential schools.

The fact that only 34% of Canadians were fairly familiar with the residential school system seemed very low to me. Before the pandemic, I worked in Winnipeg schools as a supervisor for university education students and I had a second job as a guide at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I found the children I encountered in both these situations to be fairly knowledgeable about residential schools.

Teachers I observed were talking about this tragic but important part of Canadian history, reading books about it and planning lessons and assignments related to it.

Norval Morriseau at work on one of his many vibrant paintings

We have many works at the Winnipeg Art Gallery by Indigenous artists. If I would mention to a group of students I was taking on a tour that an artist like Norval Morrisseau for example, had been sent to residential school, most students had an understanding of why that experience was a negative one for him.

If I showed them Kent Monkman’s compelling painting The Scream most recognized without me telling them, that it was depicting the way Indigenous children were rounded up to go to residential school.

From my personal experience with young people ages 8-18 here in Manitoba, I would have said at least 75% of them are fairly familiar with what residential schools were all about.

I would venture to guess that the vast majority of educators in the province have been to professional development sessions to learn about the Truth and Reconciliation document and its implications for education. More and more resources are being put in place all the time to help teachers talk to their students about residential schools.

I decided to explore the graph above further and sure enough, all the respondents had been 18 years of age or over.

“They should have asked the kids”, I thought. I think the results would have been different if they had.

This age-specific graph while it didn’t measure children’s familiarity with the residential school system does show that it is the youngest category 18-29 who are the most familiar with the residential school system.

I realize we have a long way to go before Canadians are as educated as they need to be about what happened at residential schools, but I think the younger generation of Canadians give us hope that we are headed in the right direction.

Other posts………..

Things Are Changing

10 Things About The Scream

Not A Fair Comparison

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Filed under Canada, History

What a Woman!

Recently I was walking by Laura Secord School where I attended kindergarten in 1958-1959 and I saw a sign erected in honour of Lillian Beynon Thomas. I had never heard of Lillian. I was curious. Who was she?

Lillian Beynon Thomas

I discovered Lillian was one of Winnipeg’s first newspaperwomen and the page she was responsible for in the Winnipeg Free Press at the turn of the century was called Home Loving Hearts. Many of her readers were prairie farmwives who wrote to her about their lonely and often isolated lives. Some of them had been abused or abandoned by their husbands and many had no right to inherit their family homesteads if their husbands died. Lillian started advocating for them in the paper interspersing her opinions among the recipes, homemaking hints and fashion tips she featured on her page.

Lillian Beynon was a school teacher in Morden Manitoba in 1906 when John Dafoe the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press travelled through town. Lillian boldly asked him for a job. He gave her one writing a woman’s page for the paper.

Affectionately dubbed ‘Lilly Kate’ by her family, Lillian Beynon was born in 1874 in the city of Mississauga Ontario. When she was five years old she developed tuberculosis and it left her with a damaged hip which would make walking difficult for her for the rest of her life. Ten years later her family moved from Mississauga to a farm near Hartney, Manitoba.

Lillian went to Toronto to finish high school because with her weak hip she couldn’t have walked to the school in Hartney. She came back to Manitoba when her family settled in Winnipeg and Lillian became one of the first women to get a BA from the University of Manitoba.

Alfred Vernon Thomas Lillian’s husband – photo Manitoba Historical Society

In 1911 Lillian married Alfred Thomas who also wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press. He encouraged Lillian to become a part of the Manitoba Political Equality League in 1912 as they fought to get women the right to vote in Manitoba through a variety of tactics including a satirical play called A Women’s Parliament which was staged at the Walker Theatre in 1914. It was Lillian’s idea to stage the play and she had a role in the drama which helped achieve voting rights for Manitoba women in 1916.

Lillian in the back to the left with cast members of the Women’s Mock Parliament.

Friendly and with a warm personality Lillian also started a literary club in Winnipeg and was an active member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club. When World War I broke out her husband Alfred was fired from the Winnipeg Free Press because he refused to support the conscription effort. The two of them moved to New York where Lillian did charity work and took writing courses.

Lillian’s novel New Secret was published in 1946

Alfred got a job at the Winnipeg Tribune in 1922 so they moved back to Winnipeg and Lillian kept on writing this time successful plays and novels. She won a short story prize sponsored by Macleans Magazine for a piece she wrote called Five Cents for Luck. In 1961 when she died at age 86 she was trying her hand at writing episodes for television dramas.

Actors from the Winnipeg Masquers Club recording a radio version of Lillian’s play Jim Barber’s Spite Fence in Toronto for a coast to coast broadcast

I was happy I had made the effort to get to know Lillian Beynon Thomas. I was inspired by how she overcame the physical challenges she faced from the time she was a child to become a pioneer as a newspaperwoman and a suffragette and then as an author and playwright. She was always ready to try new things. What a legacy!

Me setting off for kindergarten at Laura Secord on the first day of school in 1958 with book in hand

I’m glad Lillian Beynon Thomas is recognized on the grounds of the very first school I attended. I can only dream of leaving the kind of legacy she did!

Other posts………

Finding Nellie’s House

International Women’s Day

Kindred Spirits

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Filed under Canada, History, People, Winnipeg