more roots: Winnipeg to Fenelon Falls

Dad, August 1938

Dad, Red River, August 1938

Winnipeg is where my father grew up, so I thought I’d spend an extra day there. I’d been there twice before. Once on a camping trip with my family, back when I was about 16, and then last year, I had a brief tour when the train I was on had a few-hour stopover. Last year I took a bus tour, not the greatest of choices, given that I’d been sitting around on the train for several days, but I wanted to get a glimpse of what Winnipeg looked like. My memories from that camping trip were hazy, and not great. That trip my father was disappointed. He wanted to show us the Winnipeg he remembered, and of course that place didn’t exist anymore. Even the weather didn’t cooperate, keeping up a steady drizzle (much like what we were used to in Vancouver) to belie the stories he’d always told about what glorious summers Winnipeg had. For some reason, mosquitoes didn’t seem to bother him, so that hadn’t factored in either, but the bugs sure got us.

Anyway, my bus tour last year took me to the legislature for a bit of a tour, and to a smidgen of Assiniboine  Park, and then back to the train. We waved at the zoo as the bus went by. The new Canadian Museum of Human Rights was still under construction at that time, but it’s open now, so I meant to take the time to visit, and also go see what The Forks was. People always say, go see The Forks. Kind of like they all say, go to Granville Island.

Roman bath, Lego style. There were lots of actual statues on display too.

Roman bath, Lego style. There were lots of actual statues on display too.

My plans though, are loose. I was distracted by the WAG (Winnipeg Art Gallery) and the exhibition Olympus, The Greco-Roman Collections of Berlin. I mean when will I be in Berlin? Or Greece? Or Rome? (Hmm, have to think about that.) But when something’s right there, well, go. By the time I’d wandered through the rest of the gallery, and then followed a tour guide through Olympus, it was getting late in the day. I then walked over to the Human Rights Museum, and decided against going inside. It was only an hour from closing, and I just couldn’t bring myself to rush through a museum full of examples of how people can be horrid to each other. I’m not sure I even wanted to do it in a leisurely fashion, honestly. I think I’d have to gear up for it. So I went to find the Forks and get something to eat instead. Choices. But no point in me keeling over, either. (I would like to take the train across Canada another time, and maybe that time I’ll be sure to get to the museum. We’ll see. Odd place for a national museum, must say, as I sit here in Ottawa.)

looks harmless enough

looks harmless enough

I hadn’t quite figured out what the Forks was, but have an inkling now. Found a large market, and broused up and own the aisles, and then outside. The Forks is so named, I believe, because it sits where the Red River and the Assiniboine meet. I’m not much of a shopper for souvenirs and stuff, so I went for a walk along the Assiniboine instead, toward the Legislature. It looked like it would be a pretty walk. For some reason I thought it would be full of people, sort of a natural for catering to tourists, linking, as it does, the Forks and the Provincial Legislature. The only tourists I saw were ones on a supposed river ‘cruise,’ which roared past me at a fairly swift speed. Nothing leisurely about it. The pathway is deserted, and grubby, and they don’t pick up the garbage much either. And they have chains blocking all the staircases leaving the walkway, so either you scramble through bushes, or  go the whole distance. Or go back. Or get beaten up, I guess. It did finally cross my mind that it was somewhere along here that Rinelle Harper was left for dead. You’d think the city would want to put in some improvements.

Anyway, it was daylight, and I didn’t think the Legislature was that far, so I carried on. It’s the only time this trip I’ve felt the least bit uneasy, 5 pm on a Sunday afternoon hours before dark. I saw a few cyclists and very few walkers. You’d think the city would put some effort into cleaning things up, make the place safer, instead of blocking access (and escape) and leaving the garbage bins to overflow. I passed about ten bins before I came to one that would fit in my own bit of debris. I thought of all the lovely seawall walks in Vancouver, and equally lovely river and canal walks in Ottawa, and I just am, well, gobsmacked by what I saw. So it left me with a very curious impression of Winnipeg. I did leave (escape) the river walk at the Legislature grounds, another natural spot to cater to tourists, and hey, locals too. There’s quite a nice, oh, sculpture? at the foot of the stairs across the grass from the Legislature, overlooked by a statue of Louis Riel. It was full of mud.Very few people walking around the Legislature either. I admit, it was Sunday, so the place wasn’t open, but still. It was summer time. The sun was out. All right, a bit smokey, those Saskatchewan wildfires again, but it wasn’t too bad, and it wasn’t too hot. Peculiar place, that’s all I can say, and not one I’m in a hurry to go back to. Sorry Dad.

Lake of the Woods, July 1939

Dad, Lake of the Woods, July 1939

So, Monday morning, into the car, and off to Ontario. My plan, which I stuck to, was to sleep in Thunder Bay that night, and that’s what I did. (Kenora was really pretty, Lake of the Woods and all, but so far from anywhere.) I’d looked at the map, and decided I would do long days driving, as my next personal point of interest was Fenelon Falls, Ontario. To get there, well, Winnipeg to Thunder Bay, then Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie, then Sault Ste Marie to a little place outside Orillia, where I again stayed for two nights.


Terry Fox almost made it to Thunder Bay. It's within sight of this memorial, just east of town.

Terry Fox almost made it to Thunder Bay, within sight of this memorial, which is just east of town.

The in-between day I wanted to spend in Fenelon Falls, which is the little Ontario town where my mother’s father was born, and where his body had been shipped back for burial. Seeing places, even though you know they’ve changed enormously in the 85 years since this all took place, well, it just answers questions somehow. Anyway, I drove into Fenelon Falls, a more substantial town than Outlook, I must say. I just can’t quite imagine (or maybe I can) how it might have felt to be used to a small, lush town like FF or a fairly lush prairie city like Saskatoon, and settle down in Outlook. It makes my shoulders slump a bit. And imagine it 90 years ago, life ever so much harder. Man.

Fenelon Falls, downtown

Fenelon Falls, downtown

I had it in my head to go to the museum in FF, and to the library, because I’d found mention online that there were microfilm records of the town’s newspaper (now that the idea of looking up records in newspapers had proven fruitful) and I wanted to find my grandfather’s obituary. I figured it would have more detail than what was in the Outlook paper. But first I drove through town, just to see what the main drag looked like, and saw a sign for the cemetery. Well, it hadn’t worked in Outlook, but I went to see the Fenelon Falls Cemetery because it was way more likely that’s where he was. Drove in, found an office inside a trailer, spoke to a nice old guy (my age probably) and he flipped through a book, found the location (record no. 1085: row 13 from the entrance on the west, on the north side, if you want to see it for yourself) and walked me over to where four Palmers are buried: my grandfather, his sister (Aunt Millie, who used to send us Christmas presents every year), and their parents (my great-grandparents!). This is quite a big deal, really. There are no family plots, no graves to visit for anyone else in my recent family tree, not in Canada anyway. I know pretty much where the ashes are scattered, but no plaques, no graves. There are pros and cons to both ways of doing things, but the gravesite, well, it does give you that shiver of history.

PalmerThe Palmer grouping has one big stone with the name on it, and then the four graves had in-the-ground markers, which were getting quite grown over, except for my grandfather’s, which I think was being held up by a tree root (tree wouldn’t have been much, if even there, 85 years ago). But I went back into town to get a little garden shovel, and a brush, and came back and dug around the markers, and brushed them off. Not a big deal, but now you can see them, and maybe they’ll still be visible another 80 years from now. Felt right.

And indeed, there is a waterfall in Fenelon Falls. Locks too.

And indeed, there is a waterfall in Fenelon Falls. Locks, too, but then it is Ontario.

Then, well, I did go to the museum, which is worth the wander through for a feel of how things were. Way bigger and more organized than I expected, too. And I went to the library too. Their microfilm reader was broken, but the librarian called over to the library in Lindsay, and they had a copy of the Fenelon Falls Gazette as well, and working machines. Not as satisfying as finding it right there, but I whipped down the road to the Lindsay library, and found the obituary, printed out a copy, a treasure, as it adds details to his story, little that I had before (and noticed they got his birthdate wrong). I did go back to FF to the cemetery. Wasn’t quite finished yet. I was hoping that the sun might have landed on the markers, and yes, it was slightly better, so I took my picture, and then went back to my lodgings, done with roots for now and off to visit the future (which is what grandchildren signify) in Ottawa.

been there all along

Known as Jim, according to the obituary in the Fenelon Falls Gazette. Not at all odd, just never knew.


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