"Winnipeg is hard," is my answer when asked about this place. A difficult place to survive for some and, for most, a place that never quite delivers ease. Its endless contradictions, hits, misses and near-misses, make it a hard place to know. In the end, for many of us, it's also a place we find impossible to let go of.
Not unlike many Winnipeggers, I've lived with the photographs of Foote all my adult life and for many of my minor years too. They found their way to me through textbooks, loudly whispering reminders of my ancestors' immigration; as distractions in coat check lines on walls lining the way to gilded bathrooms at the Fort Garry Hotel; and, of course, they arrived along with any mention - anywhere - of 1919 and its strike.
But there were more, of course; even from only viewing a few sets you knew there had to be. Through the project undertaken by the publication of Imagining Winnipeg we've had our suspicions confirmed about the totality of Foote's work: that it's vast, complicated - even contradictory - and full of stories we've yet to discover. In this way, his work and our discovery of it, runs parallel to Winnipeg and what's been presented to us as the city's story.
It's a narrative we've been told/sold but that we know isn't true (couldn't possibly be true): that of linear progress from a genesis out of near nothing, to growth, boom, then stagnation and some holding of its own. A story with patches constructed and given labels like "Indians," settlers, (some) women's suffrage, Labour, Capital, a story of certain families and certain others. A story of the slow maturing of such a patchwork, each square in its place, only ever interacting at their edges.
As a city community we've let this story lay for some time, but lately it's felt like we're ready to hear more. (Indigenous peoples, for example, are moving more than ever to recover and grow their part in the narrative. ) But where to start? With their depictions of both owning and working classes, of women in many and varied roles, of leisure and work, and even of race beyond white, Foote's photographs must inevitably be one place to set out from. Taken together they fold the patchwork over on itself, and over again, reminding us of connections and interactions long ignored.
There is a photograph included in Imagining Winnipeg captioned "Memorial Boulevard looking south from Portage Avenue at night, 1927." There is no snow on the ground but it looks cold - autumn, maybe - and street car tracks, highlighted by the glowing spheres of lamp posts, intersect and then run parallel to disappear into a dark horizon. The Hudson Bay Company looms at left and pallet platforms rest empty to the right. There is no one in sight.
It's a patchwork of images folded over on itself. The Hudson Bay building calls to mind encounters of Indigenous peoples, fur traders and settlers, the streetcar tracks state progress, and the empty platform suggests a city once, but no longer, on the move. The ground looks unforgiving.
It is hard, but, like Winnipeg, beautiful in a way you can't let go.
- Monique Woroniak
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Monique Woroniak is a life-long Winnipegger and lover of its histories. A public librarian working primarily with urban Indigenous peoples, she is a past member of the Management Committee of the Dalnavert Museum. She is currently working on a collection of poetry inspired by historical Winnipeg postcards and the stories they tell.